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).