Part 5 transcript

Belinda Probert:

Thank  you, Ghassan. And our final speaker is also extremely well known to most of you  I expect, Judith Brett is Professor of Politics and Head of the School of  Social Sciences at La Trobe University. She is probably the most best known  historian of Australian liberalism and the Liberal Party and among her books  are Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, The Australian Liberals and a Moral  Middle Class and with Anthony Moran, Ordinary People’s Politics. (Audience  clapping).

Judith Brett:

Okay.  What I’m going to do with my 15 minutes, is to present you with some research  findings about how ordinary Australians think or don’t think about racial and  ethnic differences but I want to make a few preliminary remarks first. The  question that I’m addressing is whether or not Australia is a racist country  and as we’ve all said, yes there are racists in Australia, many but not all of  whom are of Anglo descent and I think Henry and John have given us ... and  Ghassan too, a sense of the deep history that ... that has formed some of those  people, though I think they’re probably also formed by other things besides the  deep history. I mean I think various forms of sort of gang culture and such can  also form racist attitudes. And we have racist incidents, clearly such as the  Cronulla riots. I’m doing this sort of throat clearing I suppose, partly  because I’m sort of edgy about being put on what I see as the low moral ground  on this question, to some account. But the claim that Australia’s racist, has  to be a stronger claim than that there are racists in Australia. It can be a  claim about structural racism, and it’s indisputable that Australia has had  structural racism in the past with laws and state sanctioned practices that are  discriminated amongst people on the basis of race and I think we’re all agreed  up here and I’m sure down there that there’s no doubt about that. And we’ve  heard from both John and from Henry about the way since the 1960s, Australian  governments have made concerted efforts to dismantle these and to put in place  sanctions against race based discrimination. Now these sanctions don’t always  work but that’s a different sort of claim, the Australian state is not now a  racist state, it neither enacts nor condones race based discrimination, however  nor has it been able to rid Australia of racists, just as it’s not been able to  rid Australia of criminals or other forms of undesirable characters, that is I  think one of the things that’s partly at play sometimes in this debate, is a  sort of utopianism, that imagines governments can do more about controlling  human behaviour than they can.

Now the claim that Australia’s a racist  country can also be a claim about the Australian people and their social  attitudes, that Australians have fundamentally racist patterns of thought and  behaviour and it seemed to me that often in these sorts of debates, incidents  such as the Cronulla riots or the attacks on the Indian students are put  forward as evidence of underlying habits of mind and I think Sandy Gifford in  the piece that she wrote in the Age and that was circulated, some of it on the  La Trobe website, was partly guilty of ... of that ... that form of logic.  They’re tips of the iceberg that are seen to reveal a submerged truth of racist  attitudes that are then available for political mobilisation when figures such  as Pauline Hanson come along.

Now, I’m not convinced by this line of  thinking, on the other side of the scale to the Cronulla riots and the attacks  on Indian students and various other race based crimes, we have to put the  countless incidents of Australians of different races, reaching out to each  other, making friends and getting along and there’s plenty of evidence in  people’s day to day lives of harmony amongst racially different groups and  people, and I think we need to understand why and how this works as well as why  it sometimes doesn’t and in response to ... to Ghassan’s argument, I mean this  isn’t always just about you know white’s reaching out hands and saying, oh we’re  very pleased to have you nice brown people here, I mean it’s also ... Australia  is no longer simply ... you know there’s many other non-white people living in  Australia, so it’s also about the ways in which they are forming friendships  and ... and social connections across racial differences.

So, the material that I want to talk about  addresses the question of whether or not contemporary Australians are racists  and it comes from a larger project which I undertook with Anthony Moran, here  in sociology and Gwen Threlkel, who teaches at Wodonga. Seventy-five people  were interviewed over two phases, the first lot were interviewed in the middle  of the 1980s by some other people, and the second here were interviewed in the  early 2000s. All the people were living in Victoria when they were interviewed,  in inner and outer suburban Melbourne and large regional towns and some people  in rural districts and that may be relevant to the relatively mild attitudes  that I’m going to report, and it may well be as John said that you take some of  those people and you put them into a different social location and their  attitudes would be different, because after all our attitudes are partly formed  by the social milieu and the experiences that we’re trying to make sense of.  They were mixed by occupation, gender and by ethnic background and 40% of them  were of non-Anglo descent. The respondents were interviewed three to five times  in long semi-structured interviews, so we’ve got between six and 12 hours of  material for each person, that is they talked a lot, if they were disguising  ... you know just being polite in the interviews, they were very good at maintaining  it for a long time.

Views on immigration, race,  multi-culturalism and cultural diversity were expressed in answer, both to  particular questions about those issues, but also in response to general  questions, such as what do you think are Australia’s most pressing problems? Or  how has Australia changed in the past 20 years? And they also emerged in  people’s life stories, particularly those of first and second generation  respondents of non-Anglo background. Now, I want to if you like break it off  ... I don’t want to talk about people’s attitudes on indigenous Australians,  except to say that for the most part these Victorians we interviewed, they were  pretty vague and pretty underdeveloped. People were very uneasy talking about  Aborigines, they had little knowledge, little experience, they knew the  situation was dreadful, they felt ashamed; they thought something should be  done but they didn’t know what. Instead, I want to talk about the responses to  increased ... Australia’s increased racial diversity.

Now, only one of our 70 respondents, 75  respondents I should say, was what I would ... gave an unambiguously racist and  xenophobic response and this was a 23 year old, male sportsman, sort of guy who  would have been at Cronulla. I’m a bit like Bruce Ruxton on the Vietnamese, he  said, we should be getting rid of them, I used to live in Springvale, it’s spot  your Aussie out there, Ruxton says what others think, this is an interview from  the 1980s. The rest were generally positive about Australia’s immigration  created diversity, which they described in terms of multi-culturalism. Very few  talked much about race, although race was used as a term, in fact people used  race, nationality, background, culture, lifestyle, ethnicity almost  interchangeably.

The sort of things we ask our students to  think about in sociology classes, we find new answers amongst those different  ways of categorising social groups not happening out there. Overwhelmingly  then, our respondents thought that Australia’s mixed multi-racial and multi-cultural  population was a good thing, bringing many benefits, both to the society as a  whole and to themselves as individuals. However, they did have worries and  anxieties and what we were interested in was the ways they expressed those and  then the ways they tried to calm themselves down.

As it happened, the two interview phases  coincided with periods of intense public debate about race and immigration, in  the second half of the 1980s Australia woke up the presence for the first time  since the 19th Century of a sizable Asian immigrant group in its  midst, the Vietnamese who’d been settled after the Vietnam War. Geoffrey  Blainey warned that the rate of recent immigration from Asia was threatening  Australia’s social cohesion and the 1988 Fitzgerald report that was  commissioned by the Labor government found that there was, at that point in the  later 1980s, low levels of popular support for the current immigration program.  John Howard who was then leader of the opposition, bought into this debate and  he raised the possibility of racial restrictions on Australia’s immigration  intake, if this was in the interest of public cohesion and then there was a bit  of a sort of public free for all with Bruce Ruxton coming in and standing up  for the rights of an old style, xenophobic nationalism to say what it thought,  despite the strictures of political correctness. There was a bit of a  forerunner of the sorts of debates that then took place when John Howard became  prime minister.

The second round of interviews occurred after  the 2001 attacks on the twin towers when anxiety about Muslim immigrants was  running high throughout the Western world and for our research then these  coincidences were fortuitous because they gave us a great deal of material in  which people were thinking about the problems potentially posed by Australia’s  racial, cultural and religious diversity.

In both periods and in both our sets of  interviews, it was clear that people were well aware of the public debates and  of the racist views and actions of some of their fellow citizens and they used  various strategies to contain or limit the significance of these and to  distance themselves from them. Racism and prejudice were frequently linked with  ignorance, people would say, oh it’s the lowest common denominator or there’s a  bunch of trouble makers out there. But people also felt that the media  exaggerated it, that is they ... they felt in their day to day life, they  didn’t see a lot of evidence of the sort of racism that the media was reporting  or that the politicians and public figures were debating.

So, in the first set of interviews we had  13 of the 42 respondents specifically mention the views of Blainey, Ruxton and  Howard in order to distance themselves from them, or to blame the media for  exaggerating them. But as I said, in both sets of interviews, respondents did  express worries and reservations about aspects of the two communities that were  at the centre of those two phases of the public debates, in the case of the  Vietnamese, the worries were associated with drugs and crime, with the Muslims,  most associated with religious intolerance and attitudes to women. When we were  analysing the interviews transcripts, what we were struck with was how  frequently, when people expressed an anxiety or a negative attitude, they’d  follow that with a qualification or a counter-example, as if having expressed  an anxiety about possible negative consequences of an ethnically diverse  population, they then were at pains to calm it down or contain it and to  reassure themselves and I think that’s one of the strengths of this sort of  semi-structured qualitative work as against opinion polling which may have got  ... picked up the anxiety but then not picked up the way in which that was then  ... the person then reasoned about that.

Most of the problems and anxieties that  people raised in relationship both to the Vietnamese, the Muslims and to other  ... to immigration issues generally, had to do with what we called groupness,  people sticking together in their ethnic groups in residential enclaves, people  not mixing, people not being able to speak English so you can’t communicate  with them, parents who don’t orientate their children to a wider society.  Thirty-six of our 75 respondents raised these sorts of worries about what we’ve  call groupness. Some linked this to the insularity of the ethnic groups  themselves, so a 21 year old second generation Italian woman said it was unfair  of Muslims to keep to themselves because then you couldn’t learn from them. A  33 year old Anglo woman living in the outer suburbs of Melbourne believed that  interesting cultural diversity had to go both ways; I don’t like them not  showing an interest in our culture or making fun of the skippies. In the first  set of interviews, problems about not mixing were most often attributed to  Vietnamese and in the second to Muslims. Time and again people we talked to  answered questions about groups in social categories which we were interested  in as sociologist with answers about individuals, often they didn’t even understand  what you meant when you asked them questions about groups. Not only did they  interpret multi-culturalism as a mix of individuals and ignore the issue of  group rights and cultural maintenance which preoccupies much of the public  debate in the multi-cultural literature but they actively resisted talks about  groups and social categories. As in this comment from a 24 year old, female,  Lebanese, Christian social work student, who was interviewed in 2003. She said,  I’ve got over these idea of these people, whether it’s city people, rural  people, Australians, some particular ethnicity. Any sort of categorisation you  might want to have there’s an even mix of good and bad, but deep down there’s  more good. A young Aboriginal woman said, I don’t look at groupings like  culturally, socially everything is so diverse. It’s getting harder and harder  to group, people are moving beyond structures.

Now I think this general resistance that we  found towards seeing people in terms of their sort of group based identities is  very relevant to our discussion today. Racial prejudice involves judging people  in terms of their appearance, the colour of their skin, labelling them and then  attributing to them all sorts of group based stereotypes. What we found was  that people worked hard not to do this, and in fact generally thought it was an  illegitimate way to treat other people. This resistance to group based  generalisations was expressed in common places such as, there’s good and bad in  all groups, races, cultures, nations, again they’re used individually, or  variations of it such as you can’t talk about a whole race, only a few  unfortunate individuals. In every country in the world, there are some lovely  and some horrible people. I don’t see slovenliness and disorderliness and crime  as belonging to any particular group, Australians can stand up to anyone with  regard to criminal activities. If you look for good qualities in people, you  will find them wherever you look, if you want to find bad qualities you will  find them.

Such arguments were used both to resist the  stereotyping of immigrant ethnic groups and to resist claims that Australians  themselves were racist. It goes both ways, said a 54 year old Italian woman.  All Australians are not the same. The implication of these comments was that  you needed to respond to people as individuals and that their moral qualities  were attributes of them as individuals and that they weren’t ... moral  qualities weren’t if you like carried by groups. So, to conclude, at the level  of the social, racism involves people acting hostilely towards others on the  basis of their skin colour and putting them into race based categories and  judging them accordingly. We didn’t find evidence of this in our research, in  fact we found a deeply held individualism in which people ... on which people  drew as they learned to live in the increasingly diverse place Australia had  become during their lifetime. This did lead to hostility to certain cultural  forms, associated with certain immigrant groups, in particular those that had  strong religious institutions and separatist cultural practices but it does not  seem ... it doesn’t seem to me that this is usefully thought about in terms of  racism, it’s, I would argue, much more about Australia’s very secular public  culture and a sort of, I think quite historically deep suspicion of overt  religious behaviour and it’s also, I think linked to very deeply held  assumptions about modernity and an understanding if you like, a social  imaginary in which a society is made up of individuals. But that’s I think a  discussion ... a different discussion. Thank you very much (audience clapping).