High profile incidents of racism have hit media headlines and stirred up public discussion in recent months. Adam Goodes, an Aboriginal football star, was called an ape by a teenage girl during the AFL’s Indigenous round. Only days later, Collingwood Football Club president Eddie McGuire suggested live on radio that Goodes be used to promote the musical King Kong.
By Socialist Party reporters
At the same time the exposure of racist stubby holders targeting African refugees and Aboriginal people in police social clubs added to the discussion. This comes after a legal battle over racial targeting of African youth by Victoria Police.
Senior officials and leaders from both the AFL and Victoria police have scrambled to denounce racism and claim these incidents as exceptions, rather than the rule. Condemnation of racism is always preferable to silence or defence. However, the more important question is why these incidents persist and how racism can ultimately be undermined and rooted out of society permanently.
The roots of racism
In Australia, racism against Aboriginal people, whether by a 13-year-old girl or an AFL club president, is rarely accidental. Australian capitalism has been built upon the historic and continuing destruction and dispossession of Aboriginal people. From the earliest slaughters upon European arrival to the most recent land dispossessions to clear the way for Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest to make their billions, Australian prosperity has always been contingent on Aboriginal subjugation.
Racist violence, exploitation and oppression are features of class societies all over the world. Racism as we know it today has its roots in colonialism and the slave trade. But rather than racism giving birth to colonial conquests and slavery, it was the rise of the slave trade and colonial expansion that demanded ideas to justify and fortify it. Ideas grow out of and reflect material reality, not the other way around.
In other words, when an economic system can profit from the oppression of a certain group it has incentive to concoct an ideological justification to do so. In the case of Aboriginal people the narrative constructed – like in so many colonial countries – was that Aboriginal people were more akin to the local fauna than to Europeans. This story gave the emergent Australia ruling class the moral authority to treat Aboriginal people however they wished – i.e. however could best facilitate their profiteering.
So when someone refers to an Aboriginal person as being less-than-human, this is a continuation of the historical narrative, not an exception to it. This is why such racist taunts cannot be shrugged off as a ‘joke’.
But it is also not enough to simply condemn language that is rooted in these historical narratives. As long as the dispossession, oppression and exploitation of Aboriginal people continue, so will racist narratives continue in order to justify it.
How racism can change
However, narratives can change over time. Few people today actually believe that Aboriginal people are fundamentally ‘less human’ than those of European ancestry. Ideas about race have changed dramatically since early British colonisation of Australia. Science has demolished theories that claimed Europeans are physiologically superior and heroic civil rights movements have demanded equality.
The public outrage and debate prompted by the racist comments made about Adam Goodes point towards how Australians understanding of racism has changed over time. Research from Deakin University suggests 90% of us think racial prejudice is a problem. That is a significant change.
What hasn’t changed is that Aboriginal people continue to occupy mineral rich land. It is because of this that racist narratives continue. Now, the problems of Aboriginal Australia – the products of hundreds of years of systemic oppression – are distorted, manipulated and employed to justify destructive, racist policies like the Northern Territory Intervention.
When politicians and the media cynically portray Aboriginal people as incapable of looking after themselves and their families, is it any wonder racist stereotypes and prejudices persist?
So while 90% of Australians think racial prejudice is a problem, other surveys have found that 92% of Aboriginal people have been racially vilified in the last 12 months.
Aboriginal people are undoubtedly the group most oppressed by racism in Australia. However, they are not alone. History is littered with examples of racism being whipped up to weaken resistance to a system based on profit for the few. Anti-Chinese racism was a diversion from collective struggle in the gold rush era.
Similarly religious sectarianism against the Irish was an attempt to undermine the anti-conscription and anti-war movement in the early twentieth century. Racism against Greeks and Italians after the Second World War was used to cut across the socialist and trade unionist traditions they brought with them to Australia.
Over the last decade, Islamophobia has been used to justify the brutal Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as draconian ‘anti-terror’ legislation. Today refugees who arrive by boat are treated, in many cases, worse than animals.
In every example, racism is used to divert blame for problems that capitalism itself creates. It is the never-ending drive for profit that is the cause of war, poverty and environmental crisis. Yet it is refugees and migrants who are too often blamed for the lack of funding for services, unemployment, and unsustainable carbon emissions!
For the ruling elite in class society, racism is an essential tool used to sow divisions amongst the working class. It spreads the illusion that there is not enough wealth to go around so we must fight each other if we want our share. Which particular group is targeted and which narrative is used at any given time will continue to evolve, but the pervasiveness of racism will not. That is, until the root cause is addressed.
How to combat racism
Capitalism provides fertile ground for racism because it is a system based on inequality – inequality based on exploitation and violence. Because of this, the most effective way to campaign against racism is to campaign against capitalism itself.
If we recognise racism as an ideological justification for material inequality, then we must fight that material inequality in order to fight racism. This means fighting for a society in which the vast wealth that exists is used to improve the quality of life for all.
There is enough wealth to make sure that everybody’s basic needs are catered for, and then some to spare! The problem is that ordinary people don’t control it. Therefore the solution to racist divisions is collective ownership and control of society’s wealth. Only a democratic socialist plan of production and distribution can ensure equality for all groups in society.
A socialist society cannot erase the hundreds of years of misery and mistrust caused by racism. It can, however, remove the basis on which racism flourishes and allow humanity to, for the first time, build a society based on prosperity and genuine equality for all.