Racist violence and social class in Australia

 

It’s highly likely that by now you would have seen the video that went viral of several individuals racially abusing and threatening a French woman and others on a Melbourne bus. One of the main protagonists made these threats while pushing a pram and with a small child (presumably his son) walking right behind him.

Around a week earlier, another story made the news, albeit without the same level of hype. Earlier this year in Ascot Vale in Melbourne’s inner West, a student was walking home listening to his iPod when he was set upon by a group of three young men aged between 17 and 21. His only provocation was to be Asian and minding his own business. The men, who identify as skinheads, punched, kicked and stabbed the student, slammed his head into a wall and broke a brick over his head, while yelling “You f___ing gook” and “Lie down you dog, you yellow dog”. Somehow he survived the 10-minute attack, albeit with severe injuries he is yet to recover from.

One of the men involved, 21 year old Shannon Hudson, is a distant relative of CBD killer Christopher Wayne Hudson, and already had a long rap sheet of convictions. A forensic psychologist testified that he had “low I.Q., a borderline personality disorder and empathy issues and was a product of foetal alcohol syndrome”. Also involved was 20 year old Wayne O’Brien, who likewise ticks several boxes of dysfunction: homeless and intoxicated at the time, had dropped out of school, a history of substance abuse, and from a broken home. The court heard that he had been traumatised several years ago by the torture and murder of his older brother Christopher, who was intellectually disabled and also had been in trouble with the law.

 

What’s my point here? The common denominator is low social class. The “skinhead” youths are from what you might consider the “underclass”. Less is known at this point about the individuals involved in the bus incident, but their manner and speech betrays them as rather less than well-to-do.

It’s the same reason that the attacks on Indian students in Melbourne centred around inner-Western suburbs like Sunshine (unaffectionately known as “Scumshine” by some), and the bashing of an Indian student that resulted in Victoria’s first use of racial vilification laws took place on the bus out of Frankston (unaffectionately known as “Shankston” or “Franghanistan”).

It is common, and not illegitimate, to look at racist incidents as part of a broader spectrum of attitudes towards race and culture in Australia. So you could, for example, find commonalities between an aggressive incident on a bus, and our history of dispossessing Aboriginal people, and our previously discriminatory immigration policies, and the current consternation over asylum seekers. But by the same token, incidents of racist aggression can also be viewed as part of a broader spectrum of anti-social behaviour, be it drug-related crimes, drunken brawls, and other kinds of domestic or street violence. And while there will always be plenty of exceptions, these occurrences are far more likely to be perpetrated by people from a certain strata of society. The reasons primarily stem from living or growing up in an environment with lack of opportunities and role models for success.

It’s not nice talking about class, particularly “what’s wrong with the lower classes”. Particularly for a Lefty such as myself, it gives no great satisfaction to imply that people of higher social classes tend to be above doing certain undesirable behaviours.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that poorer individuals have greater criminal tendencies, any more than it means that wealthy individuals are better human beings. And note that we are talking about racially-motivated criminal violence here, not merely racist attitudes. Racism occurs at every strata of society, although perhaps to different degrees. Are the lower classes more racist or xenophobic than the middle and wealthier classes? Marginally. Higher education does tends to correlate with open-mindedness and a tendency towards “progressive” values. But it’s also true that more educated and genteel people are better at obscuring their prejudices than the uneducated. Knowing how to use politically correct terminology, or knowing when to keep your mouth shut in certain company, does not mean someone is less racist.

Clearly, the racism of the more wealthy and middle classes is often not as obvious and visceral as that of the less privileged. But what about its overall impact?

The effects of prejudice are magnified by the power of its holder. And the most feral and uncouth segments of our society – the types of people whose xenophobia manifests in racially abusing or attacking migrants on the street or on public transport – are also the most powerless. You might argue that this very powerlessness is an important factor underlying the behaviour they might engage in.  And while there is an inherent power dynamic in those public acts of violence, the underclass do not generally own or manage companies, or have a significant say in the workings of the various levels of government. The xenophobia of the better-off classes tends to manifest in ways that are more subtle, yet are destructive all the same. Studies show that employers are much less likely to grant interviews to job applicants with “ethnic” names, and the people making these decisions are not deadbeat bogans. When politicians institute racially discriminatory immigration policies, we are talking about university-educated, privileged members of society. Likewise with the men of ideas and influence who help fuel the flames of xenophobia in this country, such as Andrew Bolt and his boss Rupert Murdoch.

Indeed, a salient example comes from one of the best-known examples of racist violence in recent Australian history: the Cronulla Riots. The incident stemmed from tensions between two working class groups, with a mob of local whites overreacting in vicious fashion against the thuggish behaviour of some young Lebanese men from outside the area. But while these two groups took turns to mindlessly retaliate against the perceived aggression of the other, which individual played the biggest role in whipping rioters into a frenzy? A multi-millionaire broadcaster and close personal friend of the leader of the Liberal Party.

Author: Eurasian Sensation

They also call me Chris. I'm a community worker and educator, and I'm interested in things. To observe me in my natural environment... try eurasian-sensation.blogspot.com.

6 thoughts on “Racist violence and social class in Australia”

  1. Great post Chris. I totally agree with your analysis of class. People get angry at expressions of racism and forget to look at the context, institutions and milieu which created it. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on whether stuff that happens through government such as the Multicultural Council’s People of Australia doc or Ken Henry’s Australia in the Asian Century has any bearing on the expression of racial violence.

  2. Hi Jen. To be honest, I’m not sure those sort of things have a substantial impact – the average person pays no real attention to the details of multicultural policy – but I’m not that knowledgeable about their precise content so I best not comment.
    For me, there are two things that government does or can do which can influence the expression of racism in this country.
    Firstly playing the xenophobia card regarding asylum seekers, which has been going on for a while.
    Secondly, I think there needs to be a reexamination of how well migrants are integrating into society. A primary fuel for racism is the perception that these people are different and are not fitting in, and don’t want to fit in. This of course does not justify racism, but nonetheless we can’t assume that interethnic harmony will magically exist without some give and take on both sides.

  3. To expand on my comment (I was boarding a plane so had to cut it short)… I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming migrants for getting abused because they are not integrating. But to an extent it is human nature that there will be some suspicion amongst a host population towards people who are new and different. We can’t simply wish racism away, so we also need to make the target smaller, so to speak, and the better migrants adapt to their new home the better they will be accepted.

    The vast majority do this just fine. But some are not, and these fuel the perceptions that Australia is becoming too foreign too fast. For example, we can’t just dump traumatised Sudanese refugees into a poor neighbourhood with existing gang problems and assume that the kids are gonna all turn out fine. We can’t have a multicultural policy that is so blinded by cultural-relativist ideals that it tacitly encourages some migrants to do perpetuate certain backward practices and ideas that need to be left behind, and then act surprised when some of them neither accept or are accepted by mainstream culture. It’s a hard truth, but some of the greatest obstacles to a harmonious society are not only the ignorant racists, but people like those in Sydney who demonstrated rabidly against the film “The innocence of Muslims”, who simply confirm all the stereotypes and fears that are held by those ignorant racists.

  4. You kidding me? A certain “strata” of society? Racism pervades on ALL levels of Australian society. Jesus be honest, OK? It’s just that the rich and well to do folks have more to lose, so they don’t just outright blurp out racial remarks whenever they want. Most of them can barely contain their displeasure when they see a non-white.

  5. Indeed. In fact, to quote the article:

    “But it’s also true that more educated and genteel people are better at obscuring their prejudices than the uneducated. Knowing how to use politically correct terminology, or knowing when to keep your mouth shut in certain company, does not mean someone is less racist.”

    So perhaps next time read the whole article before leaving an outraged comment.

Leave a Reply