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What does it take to make a murder 'racist'?

By Andrew Jakubowicz - posted Thursday, 7 January 2010

As the international anger grows at yet another murder of an Indian in Australia, serious questions need to be asked of the Australian and Victorian governments about their framing of these events. Ever since the first public awareness of the mixture of exploitation, impoverishment and violence being experienced by Indian international students surfaced two or three years ago, governments at all levels have been in denial. The script appears to be common - no evidence of racism, random criminal acts, no issue of discrimination. Just issues of policing and institutional regulation, not of social policy. Maybe cultural ignorance of the victims also played a key part.

The stabbing death of Indian-born permanent Australian resident Nitin Garg in West Footscray, Melbourne, has again led to government officials denying racism played a part in the attack. Acting Victorian Premier Rob Hulls refused to accept racism was an issue; his denial was also voiced by Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose electorate is close to the site of murder. Gillard is "distressed" but refuses to see the attack as racist, as there is "no evidence" to this effect.

What would count as evidence? A swastika carved into the dead man's chest? Graffiti sprayed on his body attacking Indians? A campaign on urging on its skin-head followers to beat up on a “Paki”? Witnesses hearing that the attackers called the victims "curry munchers"?


With so much emphasis being placed on denial of racism, one would expect that government and police officials would have a clear sense of the boundary line - where does something begin being racist? Is there an operational definition (as in the New South Wales police “ethnic” flags on racially-suspect incidents) that might guide public statements (in which case all these attacks would most likely to have been flagged)?

What would be the implications for public policy were the events to be declared racism, and what practical effects would such a declaration have on policing and other areas of public action? So far there is silence on these questions and journalists from the international media who have sought answers to these questions have been fobbed off.

That’s not to say that there has not been evidence of racism in fact during investigations and court cases in the past. Victorian police commissioner Simon Overland recognised this in a June 2009 comment on bashings at St Albans. "Some of the attacks were clearly racist in motivation and that violence is unacceptable and racism is unacceptable in any form,'' he said.  The Victorian Parliament has also amended the Sentencing Act (PDF 144KB) to focus court attention on racial dimensions of attacks, and a court demonstrated this concern in a verdict in a case of permanent maiming of a young Indian by “Aussie” attackers in October 2009.

However, with senior government and police officials in denial about the extent of the racism, professionals from the anti-discrimination field are unable to influence public policy. For of course, if these are not racist attacks, then there is no need for an anti-racism strategy and no need to move multicultural and cultural diversity policies higher up the national government agenda.

Indian student leaders are furious with the inert non-response of government, expressing their frustration at what they can clearly see as racism, in the only way they can - pointing to the sensible decision of thousands of young Indian potential students to go somewhere else, anywhere else. The most dangerous thing about the current situation is the mind-set it reveals within government - despite all the real evidence that Australia does harbour racism and Australian culture can license racial violence, the blame is really shifted onto the victims for being stupid enough to place themselves in danger.

Opposition Foreign Affairs spokesperson Julie Bishop was quoted as saying that "I hope that as well as solving the crime, the Victorian police will work with the community to educate people about personal safety". Last time I looked it was not illegal to walk around at night in Australia’s cities. The attacks are the illegal activity.


The whole government construction of the Indian student narrative (and there are thousands of other Asian students equally scared for their safety and survival) spotlights the deeply entrenched parameters of racial discrimination and dis-empowerment that has long characterised Australian public policy, and is evident to everyone except Australia's own top officials.

I recently spoke to a visiting delegation of ethnic minorities officials from China about Australia's hallowed multicultural policies - their most aggressive questions went to the issue of the exploitation of Chinese students in dodgy colleges, and the dangerous circumstances in which many of them lived.

Indeed the level of anger among Indians (there has been a huge rise in their numbers in recent years, as we know, fed by unscrupulous selling of dodgy Australian education programs which promise permanent residence (PR) as the outcome) demonstrates a wider frustration with Australia, which the government has begun to answer through the Baird report on international education (the final version of which may be with us soon). Lurking, though, in the shadows are all those students who are well into courses they believe will deliver PR, but which the government has decided are not likely to be sufficient. When these students begin to be rejected in large numbers, the current furor will be mild in comparison.

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For other discussion on these issues see also CulturalDiversity News.

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About the Author

Andrew Jakubowicz is a professor of sociology at the University of Technology Sydney. He blogs for the SBS program CQ:

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