The roots of racism against Aboriginal people


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For more than two centuries, Indigenous people in Australia have been resisting attacks on their lives, land and culture.

Aboriginal people continually have their working rights, land rights, and welfare rights undermined and attacked. Indigenous communities suffer from higher poverty and lower life expectancies than other Australians. They deal with routine racist violence and abuse, including at the hands of police. There is an ongoing outrage of Aboriginal deaths in police custody.

Aboriginal communities also face attacks on their basic legitimacy as a people. This contributes to high suicide rates, including an epidemic of suicide among Indigenous children.

Why does racism exist?

Even though victories have been won against racism over the last hundred years, it has never gone away. Racism is constantly re-created in every new generation. The reason is we live in a class society. Capitalists, the ruling class, have a vested interest in taking land, labour, and resources from Aboriginal people, and in driving wedges between them and other working class people. Racism isn’t the result of simple stupidity or a lack of education, it’s deliberately encouraged by governments, the mainstream press, and big business.

When people are constantly exposed to backward racist ideas, a proportion will believe those ideas. But ordinary people are not the source of racism. The ruling class is. It wants to divide us, and to shift the blame for social problems away from capitalism.

For example, the Northern Territory Intervention was brought in on the basis of slanders against Aboriginal men, who were painted as child abusers. The dire conditions faced by many Aboriginal people were blamed on their culture and race, when in reality these conditions are created by capitalism.

Capitalist profit comes from the exploitation of workers. Workers are not paid the full value of their labour, and can’t afford to buy back the goods they produce in the long run. This is the ultimate reason that poverty exists. Aboriginal communities have faced generations of super-exploitation and racist violence on top of this.

The Intervention brought in a raft of pro-business policies to make these communities easier for the rich to exploit. For example, it was used as the thin end of the wedge to roll out cashless welfare.

This is a food-stamp system based on quarantining part of a person’s income so that it can only be spent at selected stores on selected items. To justify this policy, Indigenous people were painted as incapable of managing their finances. It was first targeted at them so that it could be rolled out to others later.

This policy benefits capitalists. Welfare is already at poverty levels. By making life even harder for the unemployed, more pressure is placed on them to take any job at any pay. Wage levels are determined by the lowest rate in the market, so this puts downward pressure on everyone’s wages as people compete for jobs.

Australian capitalists have always benefited from underpaying Aboriginal labour. In many cases Aboriginal workers have had wages withheld indefinitely, or been subject to outright slavery. Racism is used to justify paying one group of people less than another, forcing workers into a race-to-the-bottom.

All workers are worse off when we allow any one group of workers to be isolated by racist ideas. All of this has kept the ruling class rich.

Land grabs and genocide

Marx wrote that capitalism came into the world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” In Britain, the early capitalists privatised communal land through a process called enclosure, which caused widespread misery. When capitalism came to Australia, this process was carried out with acts of genocide.

Aboriginal people have been in Australia for more than 60,000 years. They established complex and varied societies across the whole continent. Indigenous communities supported themselves through hunting, gathering, and agriculture, and these societies were not based on the exploitation of one class by another.

Aboriginal societies developed highly sophisticated means of living off the land. Their economy was capable of sustaining small populations with an abundance of varied food, while leaving ample time in people’s lives for ceremonial and leisure activities. They traded extensively with each other, and trade benefited whole communities. This contrasts with capitalism, where trade is about making profits for a few.

In Britain in the 1700s, poverty and hardship were increasing and harsh laws were introduced to protect capitalist profits. The poor were filling up the jails, so the British ruling class decided to set up a convict colony in Australia.

It was a deeply divided society that arrived in 1788. Convicts were transported against their will, and were forced to work as part of their punishment. Privileged individuals were provided with free capital and coerced labour. These people formed the embryo of the Australian capitalist class.

The colonial government and the capitalists wanted land to graze sheep on, to profit from the international wool trade. They embarked on a violent campaign to drive Aboriginal people from their land.

The genocide that took place stemmed from the very foundations of the new capitalist property relations that were being introduced. The profit-driven system was incompatible with the Aboriginal way of doing things. The colonisers were essentially seeking to privatise the land for themselves in order to exploit it.

Tens of thousands of Aboriginal people were either driven out into remote areas or killed. Some were brutally murdered, while others died of starvation or newly imported diseases. The creation of huge sheep pastures meant that plants and animals that Aboriginal people had relied upon were destroyed.

Racism was an important tool, both then and now, to justify this. Australians are falsely taught that Aboriginal people never truly used the land. Today it’s the mining industry rather than the wool industry that covets profitable Aboriginal land. Similar racist justifications are used on the mining industry’s behalf to attack the legitimacy of remote Aboriginal communities.

Fighting racism requires a fight against capitalism

History shows that racism is an essential part of capitalism. The drive for profit in an unequal class society leads the ruling class to turn the rest of us against each other. Racism is used to justify capitalist inequality and atrocities.

Anti-racist measures that fail to challenge capitalism will always fall short. This includes the call for a Treaty between the Australian government and Indigenous representatives.

Indigenous treaties in North America have been either ignored or entered into dishonestly by colonial governments. Native Americans have seen endless treaties, and still suffer poverty, dispossession, high suicide rates and racism at every turn. In New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi has not prevented the impoverishment and dispossession of the Māori people.

A treaty with the Australian ruling class would be no different. The logic of capitalism demands the dispossession and exploitation of land and people, regardless of treaties.

Some argue for bringing more Indigenous people into the capitalist class. But capitalist wealth is based on exploitation. They increase their profits by driving down our wages and conditions, and by taking ownership of property that should be held by the whole community.

For example, in Sydney there have been moves to force out residents of The Block, a privately-owned Aboriginal housing initiative, so that the land can be used by developers. Mick Mundine, who helped orchestrate these evictions, is an Indigenous man himself, but being a businessman is far more important to him when it comes to forcing Aboriginal people out of their homes. Indigenous capitalism only benefits a privileged few.

A class struggle approach is needed

The most effective way to fight racism is with the methods of class struggle. The working class produces all the wealth of society, and so holds an enormous amount of potential power. Aboriginal workers have demonstrated this power in the past, for example with the Wave Hill walk-off that began in 1966.

Then, Gurindji workers in the Northern Territory organised nine years of strike action. They forged bonds of solidarity and material support with the organised trade union movement, facilitated by Communist Party activists. Their actions kicked off a wave of organising that established the Aboriginal tent embassy, the foundation of Aboriginal legal and health services, and the modern land rights movement.

When the working class is united, workers can win enormous concessions. This is how everything from higher wages to democratic rights have been won in the past. It is also how huge steps forward were taken against racist policies in the past. But under capitalism, progress is always resisted by the ruling class as long as possible. In time they will always seek to roll it back.

Capitalists will always keep trying to drive wedges between different groups of workers, to weaken the movement. They do this through bigotry directed at Aboriginal people, but also toward women, refugees, and people of different nationalities, sexualities and religions. To finally end bigotry we have to eliminate capitalism completely, and replace it with socialism.

The socialist alternative to capitalism

Socialism is the call for genuine self-determination for all people. We do not have this under capitalism, where decisions over our lives are made in boardrooms, and parliament is only a committee to manage the affairs of the ruling class. Their decisions are made to service private profit.

The only way to change this is to take collective, democratic ownership of all the largest corporations. Workers have the power to peacefully take the economy into public hands. Ordinary people do all the work to run society already. In reality, capitalists contribute very little.

By removing the waste of profit and the capitalist market, socialism would reach a higher level of productivity than we have now. Unlike capitalist production, this would not be based on exploitation and environmental destruction.

Together, working people can build a society where everyone has what they need for a decent life, and a say in how society is run. Decisions can be made on the basis of eliminating poverty, preserving and restoring our environment, and mutual respect between people.

Racism will not disappear overnight. A socialist government would consciously campaign to fight it back. But racism is not a natural human response. A lot of effort goes into maintaining it. With the profit motive gone, the driving force for racism can be eliminated.

Australia, and the world, can once again see a classless society based on human solidarity.

By David Elliott

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