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Defining racism

By Anthony Dillon - posted Friday, 9 March 2012

A common criticism of many programs aimed at addressing the problems facing some Aboriginal communities (such as the NT Intervention) is that because many (and sometimes all) of the people affected by such programs are Aboriginal people, these programs must be racist. I certainly believe that forcing some treatment on a person on the basis of their race is racist. But what happens when the majority of a group of people experiencing a problem are of one race, or are at least over represented? Is this an expression of racism?

For example, The Australian newspaper recently (22 Feb 2012) reported on restrictions to smoking in public areas in NSW. These new laws are expected to carry hefty fines. It is generally recognised that Aboriginal people are more likely to smoke than non-Aboriginal people. Does this mean that Aboriginal people are being targeted, and therefore the recipients of more racism?

I don't believe so, but I could well imagine that in some parts of the state of NSW which are densely populated by Aboriginal people, many of them will be fined. Of course when this happens, in addition to the possible accusations of racism, there will be cries that the people can't afford to pay the fines.


There will also likely be some who believe that their smoking is the result of colonisation, and therefore see themselves as not responsible for their personal choices. How should authorities intervene in a problem so as to avoid being seen as racist, when one particular section of the demographic is over represented?

As another example, consider the over-representation of Aboriginal people in jail. Many see this as an expression of racism. "Is this how we treat our nation's first people?" come the cries from activists.

Some critics believe that the over-representation in prisons by Aboriginal people is due to police targeting Aboriginal people, and unfair sentencing by the courts. It is interesting that some activists believe Andrew Bolt is racist because the courts concluded that he was, yet they believe that the same courts get it wrong when it comes to sentencing Aboriginal people for alleged crimes. Can you have it both ways?

There could well be some rogue coppers out there, and it is certainly the case that judges and juries are human, and therefore subjective. For example, someone who is well represented by a good lawyer and presents well in court is more likely to receive a more lenient outcome than someone who does not present well.

However, I suspect that such biases only account for a small portion of the over representation of Aboriginal people in jail. It is most likely, that criminal activity is correlated with education, and socioeconomic status. Such links are not difficult to understand.

If we tackle the problem of poverty, unemployment, etc., then other problems such as high jail rates (which is really just symptom of the aforementioned problems) will be resolved.


However, some seem to be more concerned about tent embassies and the constitution that addressing the more fundamental issues. I agree with Mick Gooda when he was reported recently in The National Indigenous Times (22/02/2012) as saying "I don't advocate getting rid of jails . . . But we have to change the narrative in this country that more jails make safer communities. Stopping people offending and reoffending does". Education and jobs is one way that will stop the offending and reoffending. And it is not too difficult to see what the claim, that racist police officers are the cause for the high incarceration rates of Aboriginal people, does for race relations in this country.

In an online article by Frank Furedi, he states "The promotion of the idea that racism is prevalent . . . prompts people to interpret each other's behaviour and language through the prism of race". I am not denying that there is racism in Australia, but there is a danger that every inequality between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians will be seen as the result of racism.


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About the Author

Dr Anthony Dillon is a researcher at both the University of Sydney, and the University of Western Sydney in the areas of Indigenous health and well-being, and mental health

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