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Chapter 1: Racism Today

The myth of ‘race’


Today, the problem of racism is heavily mystified, beginning with the whole notion of
“race”. This notion has been tightly shrouded in the appearance of something so utterly natural
for so many generations that many take it as a self-evident fact. In a 2001 telephone survey in
Queensland and New South Wales, 77.6% of respondents agreed that “humankind is made up of
separate races”1. While not in itself an indicator of the level of racist discrimination and,
therefore, not the central problem when it comes to practically tackling racism, this survey
result nonetheless reflects how deeply entrenched and pervasive the ideology of “race” is.
Race is now discredited as a biological entity. Contemporary science accepts there are no
biologically fixed sub-species of humans. Isolated genetic pools rarely exist; where they do “the
most dramatic differences of appearance can be wiped out in one act of miscegenation”2.
However, while the old biological hierarchy of races has been discredited, we continue to look
at – and judge – the world through race-coloured glasses. We have been conditioned to socially
discern fellow human beings according to racially defined appearances. The capitalist media
will headline tragic events involving the deaths of mainly white people in a First World country
while treating even greater tragedies, such as the Rwandan atrocities in 1994, as a footnote. A
person with black or brown skin will often be passed up for promotion or employment over a
white candidate, attract extra attention from police, be ignored by a shop assistant or sexually
stereotyped.
The ideology of race seeks to give social and cultural meaning to particular sets of physical
appearances. An ideological link between the physical and the cultural has been insidiously
built up through, and on the basis of, a deeply ingrained process of racial categorisation. Certain
behaviours, religion or language become automatically associated with people whose
appearance fits a particular racial definition. Over time these associations then become frozen
into permanent, necessary and natural connections. What’s dangerous about this process is that
it “flattens” social reality into a series of crude cardboard cut-outs. Targeted cultures are
reduced to vulgar, unchanging stereotypes – free of the myriad complexities and contradictions
inherent in any culture or religion – then blamed for the undesirable behaviours of people who
look a certain way. The tabloid media and radio shock-jocks rant endlessly about Arab and
Muslim “ways” to explain crime in the south-western suburbs of Sydney. Groups of young men
are routinely targeted by police because of their “Middle Eastern appearance” and treated as
potential or actual members of “Middle Eastern gangs”. This is despite the fact that they were
born and raised in Australia, which is not dominated by a Middle Eastern culture or ruling class,
and that their tastes, lifestyle and any display of gang culture (whether superficial or actual) are
closer to suburban Los Angeles than Beirut. Nevertheless, a particularly defined racial
1
Kevin M. Dunn, Senior Lecturer in Geography, University of NSW, Racism in Australia: findings of a survey on
racist attitudes and experiences of racism, paper presented to the conference The Challenges of Immigration and
Integration in the European Union and Australia, 18-20 February 2003, University of Sydney, Table 4, p. 8
2
Barbara J. Fields, “Ideology and Race in American History”, in J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson (eds.),
Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, Oxford University Press, New
York/Oxford, 1982, pp. 143-177

Ch. 1: Racism Today, by Iggy Kim 1


appearance forever brands these men’s personalities and psychology with the supposed evils of
Arab and Islamic culture.
A spate of criminal gang shootings in late 2003 in south-western Sydney, involving Arab-
Australian men, was likened to a “scene out of Baghdad” by the NSW Liberal leader and
racially sensationalised by the capitalist media. A much more serious spate of vendetta
shootings happening at the very same time in Melbourne, part of a six-year gang war inflicting
22 deaths but involving Anglo and European men,3 was treated by the media for what it was –
the activity of organised crime gangs. A series of gang rapes in 2000, again in south-western
Sydney, provoked an avalanche of racist furore from the media and politicians. Apparently,
when Arab-Australian men commit gang rape, it’s due to Arab and Muslim misogyny, despite a
finding by the Bureau of Crime Statistics that this crime is much more prevalent in
(overwhelmingly white) rural Australia.4
The process of defining people’s appearances according to race also clouds the reality of
how people actually look. A sharp eye for race can blur the real individuality and complexity of
people’s physical appearances. To many whites, even well-meaning ones, black and Asian
people “all look the same”. The practice of “racial profiling” has led to countless cases of police
arresting or fatally shooting the wrong person. But among any people deemed a “race” there are
an array of skin tones, body shapes, hair textures, facial structure and features, etc. There are
also shared characteristics that cross racial divides. For instance, there are many Aborigines
categorised as “black” who have skin colour no darker than many southern Europeans who are
categorised as “white”. One US study found that 21% of Americans categorised as “white” have
some African ancestry while a great majority of those considered “black” are part-European —
in some cases with more European ancestry than African.5 Those who qualify to be “white”
must have no trace of “non-white” features while the “black” racial category serves as a
“genetic dumping ground”.6 So a person with the slightest visible sign of some Aboriginal
background is still classed as “black”, even if they are predominantly of European origin. This
can also work in reverse, revealing the subjective and culturally relative way that people are
sorted into races. British novelist Andrea Levy has written of how her Jamaican parents were
surprised to discover they were “black” upon immigrating to Britain.7 They had been members
of a lighter-skinned, relatively privileged minority in Jamaica and accustomed to thinking they
were more white than black.
But racial branding is not all in the mind. It is a fundamentally social – not individual-
psychological – process, based on elements of visible physical difference that do exist but which
are exaggerated and homogenised in order to socially mark out separate races, with sets of
attached social and cultural characteristics. These physical differences are in themselves
meaningless but nonetheless supply racism with convenient criteria for distinguishing “those”
people and their “ways”. So certain Australian youth influenced by a highly misogynist and
macho American gang culture, who look a certain way, are labelled typically Arab in their
sexist behaviour by the government and capitalist media. Over time, such racialised physical
features (chiefly skin colour) come to bear certain social meanings. By contrast, those physical
traits that are free of racial associations, such as shoe size, bear no social significance. No one
thinks of someone’s shoe size as more than that – there’s no connotation attached to size ten
over size eight.

Racial oppression serves capitalist interests


Racism is the ideological justification and rationale for the social practice of racial
oppression, that is, systemic inequality based on racial branding. By themselves the categories
3
On the Melbourne shootings see “Ganglands”, two-part investigation by Sunday, Nine Network, February 15 and
22, 2004
4
“Ethnic community leaders’ summit erupts”, PM, ABC Radio, August 23, 2001, at ABC Online
http://www.abc.net.au/pm/s351576.htm
5
Robert Stucker, Ohio Journal of Science, cited in Linda Burnham and Bob Wing, “Toward a Communist Analysis
of Black Oppression and Black Liberation. Part II: Theoretical and Historical Framework”, Line of March, No. 8
(Sept-Oct 1981), p. 40
6
Burnham and Wing, Line of March
7
See “Shades of acceptance”, Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum supplement), March 6-7, 2004

Ch. 1: Racism Today, by Iggy Kim 2


of race do not create and maintain inequality and oppression. But throw in the exercise of
institutional power to defend and extend capitalist economic and political interests, and the
dynamics change completely. In fact, the perpetuation of race and racial ideology would be
impossible without these interests. Racial oppression is manifested in discrimination in
employment that channels certain racial groups into the lowest paid jobs and disproportionately
higher rates of unemployment; outright inequality of wages for the same work; the de facto
policy of “last to hire, first to fire”; official policies of racial segregation; “racial profiling” by
police which results in disproportionately higher arrest and conviction rates for targeted
communities; discrimination in the application and enforcement of immigration laws;
discriminatory immigration and citizenship laws; and a variety of unequal treatment in the
approval of loans, insurance, leases and other services.
Just consider how Indigenous Australians continue to suffer extreme social inequality:
• Aboriginal life expectancy is around 20 years lower than other Australians. The gap actually
increased between 1997 and 2001, from 20.6 to 20.7 for men and 18.8 to 19.6 for women.
For men, this is a lower life expectancy than in Papua New Guinea, Burma and Cambodia.
For women, it is the same as sub-Saharan Africa with AIDS factored out.8
• The Aboriginal infant mortality rate is 2.5 times that of the rest of Australia, with the rate in
the Northern Territory four times the national average. Moreover, the number of babies of
low birth weight is double the non-Aboriginal average and actually increased over the late
1990s. The figure is higher than those for Ethiopia, Senegal, Mexico and Indonesia.9
• The unemployment rate for Aborigines is about three times higher than that of the non-
Aboriginal population.10
• Aborigines are imprisoned at 16 times the rest of the population and, consistently since
1999, have made up 20% of the prison population – a rise of 6% since 1991. In 1990-99,
115 Aborigines died in custody, representing 18% of all such deaths. But not only are
Indigenous people the most victimised by the police, courts and prisons, they also suffer
higher rates of crime. A 2001 study in New South Wales found that Aborigines are 5.5
times more likely to suffer domestic violence, 3.4 times more likely to suffer assault, 2.8
times more likely to suffer sexual assault, and 2.5 times more likely to be murdered.11
• Aboriginal households on average earn about $200 less per week.12
• Aborigines are half as likely to have completed schooling and only about 40 per cent are
employed.13
• A January 2004 study by the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal
Economic Policy Research found that “labour market discrimination is more likely to
manifest in an inability of Indigenous individuals to secure a job, rather than in being paid
low wages”.14
Moreover, Lebanese and Vietnamese Australians continue to suffer disproportionately much
higher unemployment rates.15 Lebanese Australian youth are detained for violent offences at a
rate of over six times their proportion of the general youth population. The rate for Indo-
Chinese Australian youth is more than double their proportion of the general youth population.16
In the US, African Americans suffer double the unemployment,17 their household median
income is two-thirds of white households,18 they suffer disproportionately when mass layoffs

8
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, A statistical overview of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
peoples in Australia, as of January 30, 2004, http://www.hreoc.gov.au/social_justice/statistics/index.html
9
ibid.
10
ibid.
11
Cited in ibid.
12
“Survey shows Indigenous people earn less, rent more”, ABC Online, October 30, 2003
13
ibid.
14
Australian Bureau of Statistics media release, “Indigenous Australians continue to face labour force market
inequality”, January 20, 2004
15
Jock Collins, “The changing political economy of Australian racism”, in Ellie Vasta and Stephen Castles (eds.),
The teeth are smiling: The persistence of racism in multicultural Australia, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1996, pp.
73-96
16
Sarah Stephen, “The myth of ethnic crime”, Green Left Weekly, No. 569 (February 4, 2004), p. 10
17
Carl Bloice, “Black youth feel brunt of nation’s job loss”, Left Margin, May 2001, cited in Taylor, op. cit., p. 28

Ch. 1: Racism Today, by Iggy Kim 3


are carried out,19 and public schools are re-segregating.20 In Britain the unemployment rate for
blacks and Asians is two to three times the rate for white workers.21
But the root cause of this systemic racial inequality is not racism (the ideology that non-
whites are inferior/criminal/violent/misogynist/barbaric). “People do not drown because their
heads are clogged with the idea of gravity, but because their lungs fill with water. Knowledge
derives from social practices, mental and manual. Beliefs play their part in shaping our
existence but cannot be the prime cause of how cultures behave over extended periods.”22 In
other words, racism is the ideological agent and rationale for the reproduction of social
inequality between racial groups. Armies of unemployed, under-employed, precariously
employed and underpaid labour are useful for one thing and one thing only: putting downward
pressure on the wages and living standards of all workers, regardless of colour. However, when
this stratification of the working class is shrouded in the mystique of physical and biological
difference – with not only coloured people but also women thrown to the bottom of the heap –
it’s given an aura of timelessness (“the way it’s always been and always will be”). This racism
is often veiled by talk of “difference”, by the supposed inability of coloured people to fit into
“our” society and/or the natural intolerance of all people towards anyone who looks different
and, therefore, the inevitability of racial discord. This in turn motivates and legitimises
discriminatory action by bosses, cops, government bureaucrats, newspaper editors and others in
positions of institutional power.

Popular racism
This is where racism fundamentally comes from. The mutterings of the average
neighbourhood bigot are a comparatively ineffectual, individualised manifestation of the far
deeper, structural racial inequalities and racist ideology perpetuated by those in positions of
economic, political and bureaucratic power to serve definite material interests. The ideas and
views that predominate in any society are those that serve to justify, explain and rationalise the
interests and dominance of the owning and ruling class. Not only does this class command the
economy and state in general, but it also controls and owns the means of articulating and
spreading its ideas. To paraphrase Marx, the ruling ideology is the ideology of the ruling class.23
Nevertheless, the dominance of ruling class ideology cannot sufficiently explain why racism
in the Australian working class has been such a major and pervasive historical factor. Working
class racism was powerfully active in the whole birth of the Australian nation-state; the origins
and politics of the Labor Party; and the character of trade unionism, popular national identity
and working class consciousness. The grip of popular racism continues to be a real factor
exploited by the pro-war and anti-refugee policies of the Howard Coalition government. It is
inadequate to explain this or the White Australia Policy and the nineteenth-century mass
movement against coloured workers solely by the influence of ruling class racism, as some
labour historians do24. The minds of exploited classes are not empty vessels waiting to be filled
by ruling class ideology. Working people do not passively transmit ruling class ideas. Nor is
racist ideology a living thing, passed on from the bourgeoisie to the workers like some
contagion.
People actively process and make sense of ideas in the context of real-life situations and
lived social experience, based in concrete material conditions. In the imperialist countries, racist
ideas make sense (conceptually and experientially) and take root among working people

18
“Post-King age sees progress, stubborn gaps”, Dayton Daily News editorial, August 28, 2003, cited in Taylor, op.
cit., p. 29
19
Taylor, op. cit., p. 28
20
Erica Frankenberg, Chungmei Lee and Gary Orfield, A multiracial society with segregated schools: Are we losing
the dream?, a study by the Harvard University Civil Rights Project, released January 2003, cited in Taylor, op. cit., p.
29
21
Trades Union Congress media release, “Unemployment among black and Asian workers up to three times higher in
some parts of Britain”, February 8, 2002
22
Humphrey McQueen, Temper Democratic: How exceptional is Australia?, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 1998, p. 170
23
However, a ruling ideology does not mean it is the only ideology. A ruling class presupposes a ruled class.
Therefore, there are also opposing ideas and ideology that conflict with those of the ruling class.
24
See Phil Griffiths’ website, “Australian history: a Marxist analysis”, http://members.optusnet.com.au/~griff52/

Ch. 1: Racism Today, by Iggy Kim 4


because of the sharp racialised distinctions in living standards between them and the global
majority, as well as similar racial distinctions among themselves. In imperialist countries such
as Australia, the US and Britain, the working class has been stratified between a more secure
and better-paid labour aristocracy that is predominantly white, and lower-paid, casualised
workers who are mainly non-white/non-English speaking. In Australia, unemployment is
disproportionately higher in Aboriginal and non-white/non-English speaking sections of the
class. In the US this is the case among African Americans and Latinos; in Britain among blacks
and Asians. The petty and big bourgeoisie continue to be predominantly white.
Internationally, the material conditions of the Australian working class are far superior to the
workers of most of the world, especially in our region straddling southeast Asia and the
southwest Pacific. For many people in the First World, racism provides a framework for
rationalising away the material realities of a world where the distant majority of humanity is
both impoverished and non-white. For many in the relatively more privileged and stable First
World, a heavily racialised social psychology can rationalise and make sense of the nightly TV
news experience of “terrorism”, starving children in Africa, “tribal” or “ethnic” strife, political
violence in the Middle East, the cycle of Third World military regimes and civil wars, “ethnic”
criminal gangs, and the persistence of social disadvantage among Aborigines, African
Americans and other people of colour in our own backyard. Constantly reminded of these
problems by the sensationally racist media, most ordinary people in the advanced capitalist
world cannot help but feel lucky and thankful for the Australian, American or British “way of
life”. Our relative privileges are keenly felt, even while knowing that imperialism has secured
them by exporting capitalism’s worst miseries to the Third World. At the same time, feeling
“lucky” also betrays a sense of insecurity about losing these privileges in the face of global
uncertainties and instability.
This volatile mix of privilege and insecurity can leave many better-off workers vulnerable to
racism, especially when tapped into by ruling class politicians who, with nothing else to offer
or, worse, neoliberal attacks to sell, seek to re-compose their declining support base through
racialising (the majority white) people’s fears. Using the euphemisms of “border protection”,
“national security” and “law and order”, Coalition and Labor politicians drum up xeno-racist
hysteria and jostle to prove themselves the best in confronting the combined threat of refugees,
terrorists and “ethnic” crime. Whether such politicians are themselves racist individuals is
beside the point – the fact is they wilfully play the race card for political self-interest, tapping
into the racialised dialectic of privilege and insecurity that is a significant feature of working
class consciousness in the advanced capitalist countries.

Ch. 1: Racism Today, by Iggy Kim 5