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Economic freedom and the old school tie

By Stephen Hagan - posted Thursday, 20 September 2007

Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little; May 19, 1925 - February 21, 1965), also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, former American Black Muslim minister and a one-time spokesman for the Nation of Islam once said: “You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.”

The robust militant times of the ’60s will be remembered for the great black orators that rose to prominence in the United States: Martin Luther King Jn., Rosa Parks, Jessie Jackson and Malcolm X; as well as those in Australia: Charles Perkins, Chicka Dixon, Doug Nichols and Cath Walker (Oodgeroo).

The common theme articulated by these remarkable personalities, especially the latter group, was the need for equality and freedom for their people. They didn’t just mean the right to vote and be counted in the census - but moreover sought a genuine commitment of preparedness on the part of non-Indigenous Australians to afford Indigenous Australians a “fair go” in their so-called land of “opportunity”.


I often marvel at the way in which mainstream Australians openly assist waves of immigrants - Italians and Greeks post-World War II; South-East Asians post-Vietnam War and in recent times thousands of refugees from the war torn Middle East and East Africa - with empathetic outstretched hands, yet steadfastly brush Indigenous Australians aside when we seek commensurate assistance for basic services.

However, and in light of the above observation, I do believe many of our mob are doing themselves a disservice by routinely singing the “poor bugger me” tune while proportioning blame to non-Indigenous people for their insufferably slow progress in gaining economic equality.

Have we been too quick in “spitting the dummy” when, at times, the going gets tough, instead of soldiering on and striving to overcome the obstacles deliberately and strategically laid out in our paths by uncaring civic leaders?

Many white social commentators and some of our upwardly mobile black success stories might argue that we are.

My attraction to this important communal disparity debate has seen me look more closely at the reasons why Indigenous people consistently achieve below par levels of economic success in this country. The term often used by social theorists in describing this observable fact is called social capital and contains the following components:

  • bonding social capital (that is, links among people who are like one another), which is important for “getting by”;
  • bridging social capital (that is, links among people who are unlike one another), which is crucial for “getting ahead”; and
  • linking social capital (that is, vertical links to people in positions of authority), which plays a special role in development and poverty alleviation. (Woolcock, M 2004.)

Take for instance my Year 12 Marist Brothers College Ashgrove (Brisbane) Class of ’77 reunion held recently. During a memorable evening with about 70 former class mates I pondered the question why every member of my class recorded parallel stories of success as measured by: job security (steady prosperous vocation); asset security (investment portfolio, house and car); family security (happy, working wife and ambitious children at boarding school or university); and admirable leisure pursuits (favourite national and international holiday destinations).

Contrast that class with my Indigenous brothers and sisters from my Cunnamulla Junior State High School years who, in the main, are now living on welfare, working as labourers or have been lost to us many years prior through accidents or illness. Most of my Cunnamulla class mates would not have a superannuation fund, or a dual income stream. They wouldn’t own or have a mortgage on a house, or take national or international holidays.

The dissimilarity of the groups is considerable and at times it feels like they live diametrically opposite lifestyles - and in reality they probably do.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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