For some time now, there has been a divergence between the images of racism in research and those that lie behind much anti-racist policy and activism. Many opposed to racism see it in a very simplistic fashion: racists are always white and bad and their victims are always not so white and good. The limited nature of this stance clearly shows in the poverty of the reactions to the Cronulla violence.
Anti-racism in Australia needs to re-invent itself, whether it aims for the difficult goal of getting through to racists, to invite them to reflect on the negative effect of their actions, or the easier but just role of helping to formulate policy that limits the capacity of racists to hurt their victims.
Racists are not one-dimensional, evil people. They can be good people too, and often are. Not many people engaging in racism see themselves in the image of our dominant negative stereotypes of what a racist should be like: a sleazy white supremacist, a violent skinhead or a guard in a Nazi concentration camp.
Often the reverse is true: racists feel morally righteous and justified in having the attitude towards certain others that they have. But even when they don't, racists remain human beings and their weaknesses are the weaknesses of all of us as human beings.
They are not some breed apart as anti-racist moralisers make them out to be. Beside being incorrect, the portrayal of racists as villains is inefficient as an anti-racist strategy. It disallows, for example, the possibility of communication with people who simply do not feel themselves to be villains at all. Furthermore, such a conception of racists works to stop people from seeing racism in the most obvious places. This has been the case in some of the commentaries on the Cronulla events.
There are those who argue that, on the whole, the crowd that assembled on the beach was not racist because only a handful among them were genuine wog-haters. The others were just average young blokes who wanted to make a point.
So, to qualify as racist, a crowd should be full of very nasty people. This is used to pull out the trick of convincing us that the very obvious fact - that the Cronulla crowd looked and acted like any other racist crowd in history before it - is not obvious at all, since there were lots of good people on the beach that day who just wanted to make a point. Anti-racists should not be saying: "No, they weren't nice people - they were racists." They should be saying: "Yes, there were nice people among them, but this does not make the crowd any less racist."
Along with the division of people as good and bad lies a common anti-racist conception of racism as always white. This is also far from the truth: everybody can be racist. White people of a European background do not have a monopoly on racist beliefs and attitudes; it is a feature of all cultures.
But there is a difference between racism as a negative portrayal of people and racism as a power to do negative things. While everybody can have racist beliefs, not everybody has the power to act on their beliefs.
This is where white racism derives its historical importance. White people, historically speaking, have been in a position of power so that they have been able to act on their racism more so than others. If white racism has had the power to discriminate and shape society more than others, this does not mean that non-white racism has had no effect at all. Indeed, the victims of racism themselves are not necessarily good. Just because one is a victim of racism does not make one virtuous.
Victims of racism can be racists themselves. Anti-racists should recognise and be able to tackle cases where non-whites are discriminating against others. These could be minor cases where non-white owners of small firms discriminate against white job-seekers, or more important and violent cases, such as the Lebanese-background rapists targeting what they have classified as Australian girls. If they fail to tackle such cases, anti-racists, whether they are activists or legislators, will appear to be morally singling out white people who will feel treated as if they have a disease no one else has.
The non-recognition of racism by minority groups by anti-racists has left the way open for its strategic use by majority racists. In Australia, a number of media commentators and politicians, prejudiced against certain minority groups, are using the fact that such groups have racist tendencies and racist individuals among them to legitimise the racism of the majority towards them. We need to keep the racism of the minorities in check, because they can still hurt people, because minorities can become majorities, and because those who are minorities in one place can be a majority in another. Nevertheless, emphasising racism of minority groups cannot be done at the expense of ignoring the racism of the majority.
The idea of not seeing that there are Lebanese-Muslim forms of racism that exist in Australia and that need to be dealt with seriously is naive at best. But the idea of equalising between the Cronulla riots and Lebanese racism is equally ridiculous, when it is not simply mischievous. In terms of world history it is the racism of the majority, not that of the minorities, that has led to the most evil racist situations known to us: slavery, apartheid and the Holocaust.
One of the greatest political theorists who has worked on racism is the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt. She emphasised that racists do not come to us clothed as monsters: she called this the banality of evil.
But what is particularly evil about racism is that its ordinariness and banality can transform very rapidly and before we know it into a Grand Evil, such as mass extermination. Our era is generating such lopsided logics, and the state of anti-Muslim animosity that is being legitimised and routinised is such that it is not far-fetched to imagine ourselves engaging in the racist mass incarceration or even extermination of Muslims on the grounds that they are racists. This is one, among many reasons, anti-racists need to sharpen their tools.
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 12, 2006.