Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 29May 1992

Racism in Australia

by Dr Hannah Middleton

Many Australians have been shocked by recent events revealing to extent of racism among police around the country. The attitudes and behaviour of some police in Cop It Sweet, the ABC television program on police in Redfern (an inner-city suburb of Sydney with a high Aboriginal population), the display of an openly and crudely racist crossword in a South Australian police station, and a video of police at a party dressed as Aborigines with nooses around their necks, pretending to be Mr Lloyd Boney (who died in police custody) or Mr David Gundy (who was shot by police during a raid) have all caused deep outrage and concern. This was added to by a later incident in which recruits from Duntroon military college turned up at a party with blackened faces and nooses around their necks in cruel and offensive mockery of dead Aborigines.

Suggestions that such deep and pervasive racism in police forces around Australia reflects wider community views are correct. However, this cannot be accepted as an excuse to justify racism among police. Police have specific training and responsibilities and extensive powers. Consequently, they must conform to stringent standards and be subject to the rule of law, including laws which make acts of racial discrimination a punishable crime.

In fact, we have the opposite – discriminatory arrests, deaths in custody and now mocking racist actions by police.

But where does this deep seated racism in Australia come from?

What is racism?

The Black American scholar Oliver Cromwell Cox says 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.”1 The ideology of the “white man’s burden” was a thin camouflage for the economic motives of imperialism. Racism is a theory based on the false notion of biological and mental differences between races and 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.

Racism is not an abstract moral and social issue but is an instrument of monopoly capitalism, an instrument of exploitation and profit, a means to impose and maintain political power and to cause social divisions.

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.

Darwin’s theories of evolution 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.”2

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 show the same contradiction between equality among white men and suppression of coloured men; 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 to create the right climate for 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 and the wholesale plundering of the human and natural resources of other countries was established.

The same basic motive force for racism operates today. There is an almost desperate atmosphere as the rulers of the Western capitalist countries try to solve their difficulties at the expense of other countries and at the expense of their own working people at home. 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.

The crudest version of racism in Australia today is the unscientific, lying theory of the genetic inferiority of Aborigines. The essential genetic equality of all races has been well-established by science. Racist genetics is an ideological hangover of the slave system, adapted to present-day conditions by ideologists of capitalism.

These theories reached their most vicious form in German fascism and are the cornerstone of the ideology of apartheid in South Africa. As the recession deepens, 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. But these are criminal theories and their toleration can have disastrous results.

Racial discrimination is not a result of natural laws nor of 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 we must always ask are: which people are responsible for racism and who benefits from it?

Racism in Australia

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, perhaps most 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, culture 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.

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.

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.”

The Party must take the lead in the fight to realise the special national rights of the Aboriginal people and against all forms of discrimination against them. The road to working class solidarity and the alliance between the class and the oppressed national minority depends on the consciousness that develops in the course of the struggle for equality and recognition.

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, commented:

"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.”3

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. We do have anti-imperialists who suffer from chauvinist influences. And without such consciousness, we cannot have working class unity or anti-imperialist unity. And without such unity, there can be no real social progress. 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.”4

Towards a solution

The key to ending racial prejudice and discrimination lies in Winning Aborigines’ national rights and economic equality. The centrepoint of the solution is land rights.

Land rights convey recognition of the special status of Aboriginal people as the original owners and occupiers of this continent. Land rights provide an economic, social, cultural and spiritual base for Aboriginal communities and their development.

The effect of land rights would not be restricted to the Aboriginal people. Non-Aborigines would be forced to come to terms with Aboriginal rights, to witness Aboriginal development, Aboriginal decision-making, Aboriginal successes. All this would contradict their negative stereotypes of Aborigines, challenging and gradually undermining their old prejudices.

The starting point must be the passage of legislation for communal, inalienable land rights for Aborigines on the basis of traditional ownership, religious association, long occupancy and/or need. The title must include full rights to minerals and other natural resources.

Title to all areas of sacred and traditional significance must be transferred to the local Aboriginal communities or to the body of their choice.

Provision must be made for the establishment of autonomous areas for communities on the basis of their communally owned land where they can develop their own economic, social and cultural life.

It is worth considering that where natural resources can be used by a local community, they should be communal property and profits from co-operatives set up to develop and use them should be controlled and used by the local community.

However, where the development of natural resources on Aboriginal communal land requires more finance and/or skills than the local community has, the resources should become Aboriginal national property.

Private companies would be excluded from developing such resources. Instead, voluntary leasing agreements should be reached with the government, including special provision for Aboriginal training and employment. From the profits from such enterprises an agreed figure of at least 50 per cent should be paid to a national Aboriginal organisation which would have the power to allocate these funds for programs in the interests of Aborigines generally with special consideration given to the local communities on whose land the resource development activities are taking place.

While it remains true that all people should have equal rights and opportunities, regardless of ethnic origin, race, gender, age, politics, religion and so forth, it must also be stressed strongly that the Aborigines also have special national rights which must never be overlooked.

The steps to restore these national rights and economic equality will need to be accompanied by additional measures to discriminate in favour of Aborigines to overcome past disadvantages.

The goal is equality in practice. This requires more than a formal equality of opportunity, as in a race where the runners compete from a single starting line at the firing of a gun. It requires special measures to overcome the inequality built into the existing social structure.

The kind of measures which are needed include equal pay and working conditions according to awards, the extension of legal services to combat discrimination by police and the courts, Commonwealth funding for major programs in the areas of Aboriginal health, housing and education, and adequate price levels keeping pace with inflation for Aboriginal works of art, with the use of Aboriginal motifs and emblems to be subject to licence.

  1. Oliver Cromwell Cox, Caste, Oass and Race (New York, 1959), p 393.
  2. Van den Berghe, Race and Racism: A Comparative Perspective (New York, 1967), pp 17-18.
  3. 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), p 23.
  4. Ibid, p 22.
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