Institutionalised Racism in Australia


The new series on Netflix, When They See Us, has taken America and the media by storm. I have not watched it myself, but have read into it and watched an interview the director of the series did with Democracy Now!. There really is very little to say other than take the time to look into and understand it, because the clips I have seen, and details of the story, are damning proof, if anyone was still in doubt, about the rampant institutionalised (or in some cases blatant) racism that exists in Western societies. Australia is not exempt.

You need to be wilfully ignorant or a stubborn fool to not realise the effects of institutionalised racism, particularly the rise of blatant racism sparking from it. The case explored in When They See Us shows, with no filters, the racism evident in the US judicial system and the media. The “Central Park Five”, as the boys tragically came to be known as, were paraded and portrayed through the court of public opinion as if they were an unruly gang, despite only two of them having known each other prior to April 19th, 1989. The media’s role ensured that, before the court case even began, the boys were guilty, regardless of their innocence. Despite being exonerated in 2002, and the real (white) rapist being caught (after committing more assaults as a free man, since the police did not investigate him properly), many people even today believe the “Central Park Five” are guilty, including (notably) Trump.

There are a number of people who blame “diversity” for the rise in knife crime in the UK, focussing solely on the race factor when trying to comprehend what is happening. Never mind that cuts to police, education, health, and welfare services under the Conservative government probably played some kind of role, maybe? Surely not, those diverse lefties are just apologists for criminals, right? Don’t worry, UK, Johnson will save you from the EU…

Onto Australia. As a white Australian, I feel I have little right to comment on Indigenous issues, issues that should rightly have representation from the people they actually affect. What I do feel it is important I do as a white Australian, however, is support efforts to dismantle institutionally racist policies and power structures and to call them out for what they are. It is also important to differentiate institutionalised racism with individual racism, such as the stereotype that all police target people of colour. While there may be a level of subconscious bias and profiling for some, it is a result of the institutional norms that must be changed, and I doubt many are actually racist generally.

That being said, the prison and justice system here in Australia is one of the major concerns. For a segment of the population that makes up around 3% of the national total, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people make up about 28% (12, 144) of the total prisoner population (43, 130) as of March this year. 34% of the total (14, 662) were unsentenced, and 28% of that group (4, 231) were Aboriginal or Torres Straight Islander. There are a number of factors that feed into this massive overrepresentation in the prison statistics, better explained elsewhere than here. In the prisons themselves, the treatment of children, mostly Indigenous, in the Northern Territory was even picked up by Human Rights Watch after a royal commission discovered “shocking and systemic failures”.

The prison system as a whole needs dire reformation, particularly in the form of preventing privatisation. As the American private prison system shows us, when prisons become a business for the purpose of profit, the justice system itself becomes incredibly unjust. Due to the institutionally racist nature of that system, this mix can literally be deadly for people of colour. The US is a perfect example of how to not run a prison system. Instead, the focus should be rehabilitation and working on solutions that help keep people out of prisons, rather than creating conditions that result in more incarceration.

Healthcare is another area in which the statistics do not bode well for the Indigenous peoples. While the gap is growing shorter as time goes on, the life expectancy and mortality rates for Indigenous peoples was lower and higher (respectively) than non-Indigenous peoples. There is also a lot of evidence pointing towards poorer healthcare outcomes for Indigenous peoples in healthcare facilities. While social determinants have a major role in this, racism (whether intentional, institutionalised, or historical) also plays a similarly large role.

Again, solutions and specifics are best left to those who are affected by it, but I know from speaking with my friend studying midwifery that cultural awareness is one of the defining and critical parts of how care is administered. Overcoming cultural ignorance and gaining proportional Indigenous representation in the medical field would be a start.

Education and history are the last points I want to touch on here (although there are, for sure, many more areas of contention when it comes to Indigenous concerns). I have written about this before, actually, after I read Bruce Pascoe’s fascinating book Dark Emu. My exposure to Aboriginal history growing up was severely limited and entirely through the lens of the colonial period. In school I was taught about a nomadic, hunter-gatherer society with a long history no one seemed to know about (perhaps because it was mostly an oral history and so much of it was wiped out).

We were all taught about how the Aboriginal people were killed and treated poorly by the settlers, and that there had been a long and hard struggle for their recognition as human beings that culminated in the 1967 referendum. But all of this was through the white man’s viewpoint. Australian history began with their arrival, and everything before that was inconsequential. Dark Emu shatters that notion and gives great insight into what life would have been like before the British arrived, from agricultural and aquacultural practices to housing and more.

Today, trying to teach people about this history and to get people to acknowledge the brutality the Indigenous people suffered is met, by no small part of the population, with disgust and anger. It’s in the past, move on. Why do we need to apologise for something that happened 200 years ago? They get so many handouts, just leave them. The words of the ignorant. It is precisely those statements that prove there is much work to be done to get people to acknowledge Australia’s true history.

For example, no one is asking us (white people) to apologise over and over or to feel guilty about what happened in the past. We just need to acknowledge it and understand the long-lasting effects it has had on generations of our native peoples. We need to reflect on how our institutions historically have failed to include, or indeed even acted against, the Indigenous people, and look at ways to improve and reform these inherently racist systems.

Acknowledging these truths is not meant to guilt trip white people, it is meant to move us forward as a nation together. That is why I find the Australia Day debate – I see no one has spoken about that for a few months now, how bizarre – so annoying, because it’s just symbolism. Do I think it needs to be changed? Absolutely – there are about three or four other dates that would work better than January 26th. Do I think changing the date will have a positive impact on Indigenous society as a whole? Not really. It would do very little, if anything, for the above issues. And yet it receives so much media attention, unlike the above issues, because of its controversy – it makes for easy outrage and clickbait from all sides of the argument.

So if anyone ever tries to tell you racism does not exist in Australia, or indeed the West at all, kindly slam them with the facts and reality of our society. Racism does not necessarily mean that one racial or cultural group hates another openly (although that does, at times, actually happen); it can be much more nuanced than that. Institutionalised racism is something that needs to be recognised and combatted at every opportunity, not just when it makes good headlines.

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