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Are Australians racist?

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 6 December 2011


We're close to the sixth anniversary of what have been called the "Cronulla Riots" of 2005. I expect the usual excited discussions. Some academics will be encouraged out of their ivory towers to tell us that this helps prove that Australians are racist. The TV stations will play footage of the events at Cronulla, again. They will accuse us all: " Australians are racist!"

Well, it's easy to accuse. And by mid December, it will all die down as we go into our usual panic about Christmas presents and the summer holidays.

Let's take a hard look at what happened at Cronulla. It's a quiet place mostly inhabited by ordinary Anglo-Australians . They might work locally or in the city and on the weekend they shop, watch football, play bowls, have a beer and a surf. It's not that different from any beachside suburb in any capital city.

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But Cronulla is on the train line. On the train and in their cars, Middle Eastern youths arrive from Bankstown and Lakemba. Many Middle Eastern males seem to have a culture in which boys can roam freely, while girls must be shielded and dress carefully. The males travel in large packs of 12 or 20. They are swarthy and have distinctive haircuts. They stand out a mile from the surfer guys who walk in their twos and threes and mostly have blonde hair and blue or brown eyes.

It seems these Middle Eastern guys commented to Australian girls about how they dress and behave. It also appears that they walked onto the beaches in large packs, and made what offensive comments they like - particularly to women - and people were afraid to stop them. Locals in Cronulla did get annoyed. Tension steadily mounted. And an attack on two lifesavers, apparently by Middle Eastern males, was all it needed. The circumstances of that event were unclear, but public anger erupted.

Aided of course, by the media. One of the Daily Telegraph front page headlines was "Not on Our Beach". This could have been construed as a call to arms by the Cronulla locals defending "their" beach. The issue was kept boiling by the Sydney media all week leading up to Sunday, December 11. The media is always far less interested in reconciliation than in fomenting difference. Well-known talk-back shock jocks gave the issue lots of media time and fanned the flames. One said he hoped that any Middle Eastern types would get a reception at the railway station that they wouldn't forget. SMS messages flew around. And the fires of trouble were stoked.

One of my former students provided an eyewitness account of the day, which we wrote up in People and Place journal. There were people with barbecues cooking sausages. Police joked with them and footballs were passed around as they sang "Waltzing Matilda". No story here.

But already, media helicopters were circling. Fuelled by too much beer and sun, the crowd 's enthusiasm for Australia turned into hostility to foreigners. There were a few oddballs, not from Cronulla, with simplistic signs targeting foreigners. And so we got a number of nasty incidents. The media captured these. They were the images shown repeatedly on TV in forthcoming weeks.[Reference at bottom of article]

I don't want to minimize this nastiness. It was shameful. But look at what happened in the cold light of day. The police report tells the story. The media encouraged violence and gave people permission to express their anger. Then, when people gathered in some kind of demonstration, the media were there, eager to record any hostility. The scenes early in the day of friendly singing and banter with police went unnoticed by the evening news. Instead, viewers were shown an inflammatory commentary over footage of the most extreme events of the day.

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Look around the Pacific. Koreans living in Japan are unable to have many basic rights, including citizenship. Malaysia locks out Chinese from many aspects of public life and restricts their entry to university. Hostility between Indians and native Fijians is endemic in Fiji.

The USA still has many aspects of institutionalized racism. It's not long since black men were hung in public for so-called "lusting after" white women. Black men in the US have double the rate of average male unemployment. African-American men have far fewer life chances and are found overwhelmingly in jails and on Death Row. They were shut out of many aspects of white society: Tiger Woods is the first man of colour to have great success in golf, largely because these men were simply not allowed to play in the whites-only clubs, especially in the South.

I could go on. There are issues of inequality almost everywhere, and race gets caught up in these tensions.

So let's come back to Australia. There are many aspects of Australian society that worry us. Visit some of the schools around Sydney Harbour, and you can see kids who will enjoy many advantages in their lifetimes . These advantages are not shared by working-class kids in Sydney's south-west public schools, who may be white, Aboriginal or African. It's these socio economic problems which should concern us. The idea that Australia is a nation of outstanding racism is a view held by leftist academics and mindlessly encouraged by the silliest people in the media. And it was the media who were most of all responsible for its most extreme manifestation at Cronulla in 2005. And who were happy to show it on TV, while pretending to be horrified.

I happen to love Australia. Show a foreign visitor around, and they will tell you we are the envy of many other countries. A land full of nasty racists? I don't think so.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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