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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 37APRIL 1997

Racism in Australia

by Dr Hannah Middleton

The timing of Prime Minister Howard’s attack on “political correctness” was no accident. Under this cover he opened the door for public discussion and a form of legitimisation of racism, providing a convenient justification for the Australian Government’s anti-Aboriginal and anti-immigrant measures.

Racism makes it possible for capitalism to sustain and continue its exploitation of the multi-national working class in Australia and its original theft of the main means of production, the land, from its Aboriginal owners. The appeal of the corporate rich to the public to accept greater sacrifices is accompanied by a sharp increase in the use of racism as a weapon to divide and rule.

Racism stigmatises those being exploited and divides the working class. It serves as a diversion from other issues, foments racial prejudice and bourgeois nationalism and helps make economic exploitation more palatable.

Communist Party USA General Secretary Gus Hall wrote that “above all, white chauvinism is the ideological polluter that makes it possible for capitalism to sustain and continue the special system of oppression and exploitation of 25 million Black Americans. It is a most effective instrument of monopoly capital for extracting super-profits”.1

Widespread insecurity and hardship provide an audience for the proponents of these theories who are allowed to speak and publish in the name of “freedom of speech”. People looking for the reasons for the growing problems they face are forcefed the simplistic demagogy of racism in order to make it harder for them to find the real answers — which are to be found within the system of capitalism itself.

Prime Minister Howard is indirectly supporting Pauline Hanson and Graeme Campbell who are public spokespersons for racism. Instead of speaking out against their views, Howard claims he has extended democratic rights in Australia by encouraging open “debate” on immigration and racism and doing away with “political correctness”.

What Howard has really done is to permit racism to re-emerge as an acceptable topic for public discussion.

“Political correctness” — publicly accepted opposition to racism — was to be done away with in favour of “democratic debate” — promoting racism as one of two legitimate positions in a debate and so making prejudice and discrimination legitimate and respectable.

The democratic and human rights of those subjected to prejudice and discrimination have not been a feature of the Prime Minister’s new enthusiasm for our democratic rights.

Democratic rights and freedom of speech are not absolutes. Just as these rights must be balanced against rights to privacy, confidentiality and protection from slander, so every democratic society must restrict the rights of those who set one racial group against another, who advocate racial superiority, who practice racial vilification, or incite others to discriminatory acts and racial violence.

What was and is required is not more debate about racism but more debate on how to get rid of it.

Against Aborigines

The people who invaded and colonised Australia brought with them racist ideas which they adapted and used to rationalise and justify the massacre, dispossession and exploitation of the Aborigines and the devastating effects on Aboriginal society that invasion and settlement entailed.

The theft of Aboriginal land was justified on the grounds that Aborigines had no law, government or society and therefore no title to land. It was argued that the Aborigines did not improve the land and that, in any case, nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of “progress” as represented by British Christian civilisation (actually British capitalism).

The need to rationalise the exploitation of Aborigines (as distinct from exploitation of the land) was probably less important but where extensive use was made of cheap Aboriginal labour, as in the predominantly pastoral north, it certainly played a part.

Generations of non-Aboriginal Australians have been educated in the racist ideas and prejudices that give rise to discriminatory behaviour. That many non-Aboriginal people in Australia today have prejudices against Aborigines cannot be denied. However, people are not born with prejudices: young children are “colour blind” until they are taught to see and judge the differences. Prejudices are implanted by the laws, physical arrangements and dominant culture of the social system under which we live.

Racism is deeply implanted by negative stereotypes built up and consolidated in the media, by a caricature of history taught in schools which through omission and distortion creates an image of Aborigines as subservient objects of history with no accomplishments and no efforts on their own behalf.

It is often suggested that Aborigines are handicapped in society because they have less education, poorer health, appalling housing and so forth. These comments come close to blaming the victims for their own plight. In reality, inferior education, health and housing are part of discrimination, not independent causal factors. The inferior education, housing and health of Aborigines is imposed on them, it is an aspect of the institutionalised racism they face throughout their lives.

Racism was deeply implanted by the physical separation of Aborigines and by their appearance in real life in positions of inferiority, in the menial jobs and poor camps in fringe settlements or overcrowded urban slums which were all they were allowed.

The cultural environment has been and remains controlled overwhelmingly by the capitalist class. The physical separation and placing in inferior positions of Aborigines is the work of bankers and real estate agents, private and government employers. The working people of this country did not initiate these activities nor did they influence them significantly.

Yet it is true that generations of non-Aborigines, with the exception of a minority, tolerated racist institutions and economic patterns. It is true that too many white workers participate in everyday racist, discriminatory practices against Aborigines on the job, in hotels, on the street and elsewhere.

Against migrants

In the current round of attacks on public sector spending, immigration is being reduced and services to migrants cut. For example, the government has proposed a $5,500 charge for the Adult Migrant English Program, previously a free service. At present this move is held up by the Senate.

Racist myths and stereotypes — including allegations that migrants cause unemployment and overburden the environment — provide convenient covers for a government seeking to justify its slashing of public sector spending.

Despite the joint declaration of the Coalition and the Labor Party that their policies are non-discriminatory, migration regulations tell a different story.

The government intends to increase the financial backing required to bring out family members to such a level that many immigrants will be excluded. Large fees are to be set for all procedures and services related to migration — $800 to $900 for medical examinations, for example. Just to make an application now costs $1,500 and this is not refunded if the application is rejected.

Such costs are not, of course, necessarily racist. They exclude the poor, regardless of their ethnic origin, to a far greater extent than the rich. There is an overriding class consideration here with the government welcoming, for example, wealthy Chinese or Greek migrants but not working class immigrants from the same countries.

Migrants will now only qualify for social security after they have been in Australia for two years. Until then, if they cannot find work, their sponsoring families will have to meet all their expenses.

The Federal Government’s approach reinforces the anti-immigrant propaganda that blames migrants for cuts to social programs and for unemployment. However, the evidence shows that migrants do not take jobs but, in fact, by enlarging Australia’s market, they create jobs. Unemployment and job insecurity flow from the corporate drive for ever greater profits.

How did racism develop?

Racism is not an abstract moral and social issue but is an instrument of capitalism, of exploitation and profit, a means to impose and maintain political power by causing social divisions. Racism arose with the development of capitalism and the formation of nation states.2

Racism is a theory based on the false notion of biological and mental differences between races. It is used by reactionary forces to justify racial and national discrimination in their own countries and the pursuit of a policy of conquest and plunder towards other countries.

Racial discrimination is not a result of natural laws or the simple operation of economic laws. It is part of the social relations of people, and is caused by the actions of people. People are responsible for it. The key questions to ask are: which people are responsible for racism and who benefits from it?

The Black American scholar Oliver Cromwell Cox wrote that racism is “propagated among the public by an exploiting class for the purpose of stigmatizing some group as inferior, so that the exploitation of either the group itself or its resources or both may be justified.”3 The ideology of the “white man’s burden” was a thin camouflage for the economic motives of imperialism.

Cox also points out:

Sometimes, probably because of its very obviousness, it is not realised that the slave trade was simply a way of recruiting labour for the purpose of exploiting the great natural resources of America. This trade did not develop because Indians and Negroes were red and black, or because their cranial capacity averaged a certain number of cubic centimetres; but simply because they were the best workers to be found for the heavy labour in the mines and plantations across the Atlantic. If white workers were available in sufficient numbers they would have been substituted. As a matter of fact, part of the early demand for labour in the West Indies and on the mainland was filled by white servants, who were sometimes defined in exactly the same terms as those used to characterise the Africans.4

However, Cox cautions against:

the impression that race prejudice was always “manufactured” in full awareness by individuals or groups of entrepreneurs. This, however, is not quite the case. Race prejudice, from its inception, became part of the social heritage, and as such both exploiters and exploited for the most part are born heirs to it. It is possible that most of those who propagate and defend race prejudice are not conscious of its fundamental motivation. To paraphrase Adam Smith: Those who teach and finance race prejudice are by no means such fools as the majority of those who believe and practice it.5

Darwin developed theories of evolution which were derived from and applied to the natural world. However, they were distorted and applied to human society. This “social Darwinism” was used as a justification for racism. The poor were poor, Negroes were slaves, indigenous people were doomed to extinction, it was argued, because of the process of natural selection (“the survival of the fittest”). This was linked to the assumption that Western European capitalist culture represented the most advanced stage of social evolution.

The egalitarian and libertarian ideas of the Enlightenment spread by the American and French Revolutions conflicted, of course, with racism, but they also paradoxically contributed to its development. Faced with the blatant contradiction between the treatment of slaves and colonial peoples and the official rhetoric of freedom and equality, Europeans and white North Americans began to dichotomize humanity between men and submen (or the “civilised” and the “savages”). … The desire to preserve both the profitable forms of discrimination and exploitation and the democratic ideology made it necessary to deny humanity to the oppressed groups.6

Religion, particularly Protestantism, made it possible to regard coloured people with pagan cultures as morally and also biologically inferior. Slavery, forcible conversion, suppression and even extermination thus became morally justifiable at the same time that egalitarianism among white men (but not women) became firmly established.

Societies based on European colonisation reveal a contradiction, a philosophy of individualism governing relations between white men but a definition of the coloured man in terms of collective characteristics.

All these strands came together in the creation of the ideology of developing and expanding capitalism. People were “freed” from feudal commitments to become wage workers with the old extended family replaced by the more mobile nuclear family. An ethic of individualism and individual success was promoted while the reality of gross greed and exploitation was concealed. A philosophy justifying colonisation with the murder, repression and wholesale plundering of the human and natural resources of other countries was established.

Writing on racism and American history, R Ivanov points out that:

In a period of 13 years towards the end of the 19th Century about 2,000 lynchings in the South were recorded. This figure does not include thousands of Blacks who were murdered by hired assassins.

That the reign of terror against the Blacks let loose by the racists took place simultaneously with the growth of monopoly capitalism was by no means an accident of history. The lynchings and the entire elaborate system of terrorising the Blacks were conceived by the bourgeoisie and the planters as an effective instrument of exerting extra-economic pressure on the Black people to make them work at much lower wages than those normally paid to white workers. This fact was the economic basis for race discrimination.

The political side of the question was just as important. Unity of workers of all races and nationalities has always posed a serious threat to the exploiters. “Divide and rule” has been and remains the tactic of the ruling classes at all the stages of class, exploiter society. Whenever they erect a racial or a national barrier the ruling classes create particularly favourable conditions for the furtherance of their ends. The explanation here, as Lenin repeatedly emphasised, is that nationalistic and race prejudice is perhaps the most persistent of all prejudices.7

Cox also makes the point that:

Although both race relations and the struggle of the white proletariat with the bourgeoisie are parts of a single social phenomenon, race relations involve a significant variation. In the case of race relations the tendency of the bourgeoisie is to proletarianise a whole people — that is to say, the whole people is looked upon as a class — whereas white proletarianisation involves only a section of the white people. … If the coloured people themselves are able to develop a significant bourgeoisie, as among the Japanese and East Indians, race relations are further complicated by the rise of conscious nationalism.8

What the Party must do

From the beginning, communists have based their programs around the slogan of Karl Marx — that “labour in the white skin cannot be free so long as labour in the Black skin is in chains.”

To develop this work is not easy for no-one in a racist society can be completely immune from the influence of racist ideas. Gus Hall, National Secretary of the CPUSA, warned:

Just as we cannot now get away from breathing polluted air or from drinking contaminated water, so we cannot separate ourselves or escape from our polluted and contaminated ideological surroundings.9

In our Party, influences of chauvinism do not show up in resolutions or speeches. It would be easier to deal with that kind of a weakness. The appearance is more indirect and subtle. In our Party, it results more from an unconscious influence than from conscious chauvinism. In our Party, it appears as insensitivity, as sickening paternalism, as an inability to deal with problems related to the struggle. It appears as a lack of initiative and a lack of continuity in the struggle against racism. It appears as silence, as omissions, rather than overt acts of chauvinism. It appears as passivity.10

Gus Hall also stressed:

There cannot be racist working class consciousness. There can only be class conscious workers who may be influenced by chauvinism. Only capitalist class consciousness and racism mix. We cannot have racist anti-imperialist consciousness. Very quickly, they will clash. … There cannot be a successful long-range struggle for democracy if it does not take on the struggle against the racist ideology of the anti-democratic forces. There cannot be an anti-monopoly coalition that does not take on the racist ideology, the racist practice of monopoly capitalism.11

Australia already has anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws. These must be backed up by a broad and united movement to defend multiculturalism and the rights of migrants as well as indigenous Australians.

In an article on racism, Habib Fares wrote:

It is important that the Australian people should take a serious stand against all racist concepts, trends and campaigns. … They are the opposite of multiculturalism which is so important for social justice and progress in Australian society.

A stand against racism is a barometer of humanity. … It is not humanism to talk about equality and justice while at the same time accepting oppression of Blacks and migrants …

A stand against racism is also a barometer of democracy. A characteristic contradiction of the democratic bourgeoisie is to be lenient towards racism and harsh towards national minorities.12

People have to take responsibility for their actions and for their acquiescence in the exploitation and oppression carried out by the racist ruling class. While white workers are not the source of prejudice and discrimination, they must play a leading role to end these evils.

The Party must play a role in the fight to win the special national rights of the Aboriginal people and against all forms of discrimination against them. We must help build the united, multi-racial campaign to challenge the attack on immigrants. We must win support for the idea that it is not immigrants, but the corporate drive for higher profits, that is the cause of unemployment and job insecurity.

Say No to Racism! CPA campaign

At the end of 1996 the Communist Party of Australia developed a campaign kit Say No to Racism! to strengthen its members’ participation in national anti-racist campaigning.

As well as supporting anti-racist activities by other organisations, comrades are encouraged to write letters to local papers, invite representatives of local community groups to speak at a Party meeting and discuss the possibility of joint anti-racism actions such as public meetings in a local hall or small multicultural cultural events.

Other ideas include delegations by CPA Branch representatives (perhaps jointly with other groups) to discuss the matter with local Councillors, State and Federal MPs, raising the need for finance for education programs to undermine racist attitudes and behaviour; interviewing migrant workers, representatives of ethnic organisations, local shopkeepers, etc for The Guardian; and distributing — at work, letterboxing and/or at street stalls — copies of The Guardian with articles on racism.

The goal is equality in practice. This needs more than formal equality of opportunity; it requires special measures to overcome the inequality built into the existing social structure. The struggle is to retain what has been won and to extend the rights of those under attack, particularly the poor and voiceless.

  1. Gus Hall, Racism: The Nation’s Most Dangerous Pollutant, report to CPUSA National Committee meeting, March 14, 1971 (New Outlook Publishers, New York, April 1971), pp 4-5.
  2. See extract from Oliver Cromwell Cox, Caste, Class and Race (Doubleday, New York, 1948) published as a separate article “Historical Aspects of Race Relations” in this issue of Australian Marxist Review.
  3. Oliver Cromwell Cox, Caste, Class and Race, (Doubleday, New York, 1948), p 393
  4. Ibid, p 332
  5. Ibid, p 333 (footnote)
  6. Van den Berghe, Race and Racism: A Comparative Perspective (New York, 1967), pp 17-18.
  7. R Ivanov, American History and the Black Question, (Novosti Publishing House, Moscow), 1976, p 132
  8. Cox, op. cit, p 344
  9. Gus Hall, op cit, p 3
  10. Ibid, p 23.
  11. Ibid, p 22.
  12. Habib Fares, “Racism” in AMR, No 27, January 1991, p 40.

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