The race riots of Sydney were not a surprise; nor were they predictable and avoidable.
While not wanting to oversimplify the backdrop to racially motivated violence, including the role of politicians, public commentators and the media in the lead-up to the recent sickening scenes, one clear policy issue stands out as contributing to hostility against Arab and Muslim Australians.
Racial profiling and the policy of using ethnic descriptors by the NSW police and government have played a clear role in fostering an atmosphere of discrimination and confrontation, and that atmosphere has led to violence against innocent citizens.
The Australian Arabic Council (AAC) has for some time campaigned against the use of racial profiling and the term "of Middle Eastern appearance" in a range of jurisdictions across Australia, including NSW.
The AAC was instrumental in gaining a change in public policy at both the Victorian and federal level, where such racial descriptors have now been dropped. In February 1997, after a long dialogue process, all Australasian police commissioners endorsed national guidelines by the National Police Ethnic Advisory Bureau on descriptions of persons issued by police to the media. Unfortunately, NSW sought not to adopt the new guidelines, citing the view that each jurisdiction was expected to reflect the particular and diverse needs and views of the state concerned.
How can the category of Middle Eastern be rendered ludicrous in Victoria and at the federal level but still be seen as useful in NSW?
Research, both internationally and domestically, has illustrated and shown the limitations of the use of racial profiling in policing. Physical descriptors have been repeatedly shown to be more effective in crime prevention methods.
One of the undermining factors in the use of ethnic descriptors is the inability of the general public to differentiate between various races and cultures, and its over-reliance on racial stereotypes in influencing decision-making, ultimately undermining the ability of police to conduct investigations efficiently.
Bob Carr in particular has much to answer for over recent years, from supporting the use of racial descriptors by police and inflaming tensions and fears through the use of rhetoric and generalised comments such as "Lebanese gangs".
This language has now permeated Sydney, bringing with it a culture of fear and hate targeting the city's Arab and Muslim communities. Recent events locally and internationally have only magnified the apprehension and scaremongering, which have in turn been captured and exaggerated by ratings-driven media.
Clearly, prejudice and xenophobia have played a substantial role in the racially motivated violence of recent days. Unfortunately, the accepted use of racial profiling by the police and politicians has now translated into an ugly reality of unsophisticated bigotry.
The policy and continued use of the term "Middle Eastern appearance" has played an extremely important role in justifying the hooligans' actions.
Those who are referred to as suspects of “Middle Eastern appearance” in criminal cases are mostly Australian-born Australian citizens. Their ethnicity, over which they have no control, has no relevance to their behaviour, which they can control.
NSW Premier Morris Iemma has shown some leadership in confronting the issues of ugly racism in our midst. The real question is whether he can show courage in re-evaluating the now outdated policy of racial profiling.
This no doubt will be a challenge, if Mr Iemma is to attempt to break with the political direction of his predecessor. However, it would be a valuable step in breaking down tensions and showing some public policy leadership at a time when real answers, and not just more boilerplate rhetoric, are sorely needed.
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