Are Australian policies on asylum seekers and Aborigines racist?
The Sydney Morning Herald has just published an article focusing on comments made by UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay, regarding what she considers to be elements of racial discrimination in certain Australian policies, namely the treatment of asylum seekers and the NT intervention. Pillay states:
“I come from South Africa and lived under this, and am every way attuned to seeing racial discrimination,” Ms Pillay, a former anti-apartheid campaigner and international criminal court judge, said at the end of a six-day visit.
“There is a racial discriminatory element here which I see as rather inhumane treatment of people, judged by their differences: racial, colour or religions,” she said.
The Herald has framed this story as an attack on Australia itself as racist with the headline: “UN rights chief slams ‘racist’ Australia”. This slippage between particular policies and the country as a whole means that debate is probably going to dwell on the question of whether Australia is a racist society or not. This is, I think, not all that helpful if we want to have a more nuanced understanding of the particular political and economic factors that have produced the NT intervention and successive governments’ asylum seeker policies.
But the more I think about this the more I wonder if this kind of slippage is going to be inevitable given the nature of the criticism. After all, what precisely connects these two policy areas with each other? Why are they both evidence of the same thing? Are we not forced to conclude that what links them is some racist essence in Australian society itself? Or are there other more specific and tangible ways that these policies can be connected without resorting to abstract notions like “Australian racism”? Do they both, for example, reflect a particular mode or logic of governance? Do both these policies represent instances of governments using marginal populations to score political points? But then doesn’t this align them with rhetoric about being tough on crime, on “welfare cheats” and so on? Don’t they then participate into much wider economies of resentment than just racism? Why then privilege race as the base issue?
In fact, I wonder how useful it is to frame criticisms of these policies in terms of racism at all. Unlike Apartheid-era South Africa, racial discrimination is not explicitly encoded into the law — quite the reverse. So what factual basis is there to say that inhuman treatment of people is on the basis of differences in race, colour or religion? Sure, discrimination occurs and many Australians hold racist views — I’m certainly not trying to deny that — but what’s the evidence to say that the policies themselves are founded in racism? Wouldn’t it be more productive simply to focus on the inhumane results of the implementation of the policies,which at least can be objectively demonstrated?
These questions may be naive. Maybe people who know more about these two policy areas could offer better interpretations. But my main question here is this: is it justified to use racism to connect the treatment of asylum seekers and Aborigines with each other?