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‘White flight’ in Australian schools

10 March, 2008

The term ‘white flight’ is one I associate with the USA. I have never heard it used in an Australian context before. However, the Herald has just published a report about this phenomenon, which it says is producing an ever more ‘racially’ and religiously segregated education system. In both city and country contexts, they report, white students are increasingly moving into Catholic and independent schools and away from public schools with large populations of Aborigines, Muslims or Asians. An excerpt:

The NSW Secondary Principals Council conducted a confidential survey which raises serious concerns about “white flight” undermining the public education system and threatening social cohesion. Some teachers and principals have described it as “de facto apartheid”.

The findings are backed by research from the University of Western Sydney, which has identified evidence of racial conflict in schools in the wake of the Cronulla riots. It also suggests students of Anglo-European descent are avoiding some schools with students of mainly Asian background.

Not only have some public schools lost enrolments; they have become racially segregated. In pockets of rural and remote NSW, Aboriginal students fill public schools and white students attend Catholic and other private schools in the same town.

Around Sydney, the parents of some Anglo-European students are avoiding what they perceive as predominantly Lebanese, Muslim and Asian schools.

In New England, in towns such as Armidale, white middle-class students are flocking to Catholic and independent schools.

In their report, principals say this is so the students can “get away from their local school”.

“This is almost certainly white flight from towns in which the public school’s enrolment consists increasingly of indigenous students,” the report says. “The pattern is repeated in the Sydney region. Based on comments from principals, this most likely consists of flight to avoid Islamic students and communities.”

The term ‘white flight’ is not completely appropriate here because it’s not just whites who are making choices that leader to greater levels of segregation. On section of the article suggests, for example, that Asian families may be avoiding schools perceived to be ‘Muslim’. There is also the suggestion that in Southwestern Sydney, Aboriginal and white kids are ‘lining up against’ kids of Lebanese background rather than against each other, as was previously the case.

See also this article on the same theme, which includes details of students crossing from NSW to Queensland to avoid the local public school, perceived as ‘indigenous’ and (therefore) ‘scary’ by students.

It would seem that there are several things going on here.  First, there has been a general move to private education among middle class families, which was exacerbated during the Howard years as more public funds were directed to private schools and policies encouraged school choice and student mobility.  Second, ‘racial tensions’ in schools seem to be on the rise — with the Cronulla Riots featuring, as a cause or result?  Again, one could argue that Howard government policies and rhetoric, which promoted a normative white model of Australian identity and encouraged xenophobic nationalism, have exacerbated this trend.  Third,  class is a factor, and much of this segregation could be understood as a product of increasing class segregation in Australian society.

I suppose another point to be taken from this is that this ‘white flight’ phenomenon, according to the reports, differs from the US in that families are not relocating away from neighbourhoods perceived to be undesirable and therefore creating monocultural ghettos.  Children are increasingly travelling long distances to schools, or boarding, but families are staying put.  It therefore doesn’t seem to be the case that ethnically homogeneous neighbourhoods are necessarily being produced.

Generally speaking, I see this kind of development as an example of the sort of thing that happens when governments move away from being producers and guardians of public institutions and collective ‘goods’, to becoming the facilitators of privatised choice.  Faith in public institutions, in this case schools, diminishes at the same time as people are encouraged to be more entrepreneurial in their choices.  In short, a sort of market force is at work, and what might appear to be good at the level of the individual — more choice — can produce a systemic racism.

Gerard Noonan, The Herald’s Social Issues Editor, makes similar points when he argues that there are two main factors underpinning the trend towards de-facto segregation:

The first is the ideological obsession with “choice”, which a decade ago in NSW changed the way students in NSW were able to enrol in schools.

Previously students attended their “local” school, based on where they lived. With few exceptions, it was a century-old tradition which ensured a genuine mix in schools – the smart, the scholastic pedestrians, the talented musicians and the sports-obsessed, the immigrants, the local Aboriginal kids, the funny, the socially inept, the goofy – all mixed together.

This widespread and predominantly secular approach allowed Australia to claim, with some justification, that its supposed egalitarianism and lack of class pretension was nurtured and cemented in the nation’s schools.

Now students can effectively enrol anywhere. They do, and one of the results is the abandonment of schools such as the ones identified in the principals’ survey, often for no other reason than distaste by parents in their thousands at having their kids rubbing shoulders with others from a different ethnic, class or religious background.

The second institutional factor is the deliberate effort by federal and state governments to pour billions and billions of dollars into supporting private schools and making them more and more attractive options for the well-off.

These schools, with a few exceptions, generally enjoy far better facilities, lower student-teacher ratios and more “choice” and they make their pitch for a “specialness”: the antithesis of the secular equality of opportunity which underpins Australia’s boastful egalitarianism.

It’s difficult not to see this officially sanctioned abandonment – so starkly revealed by school principals in a report that was kept under wraps for two years – as evidence of plain, old-fashioned racism at work. (See his full article here).

I think the claim of “plain, old-fashioned racism” is a little simplistic.  What this case shows is that a lot of individual choices which are not necessarily racist per se — just wanting the ‘best’ education for one’s kids — can add up to a sort of racism at a much broader level.  This is not to say that racism is not an issue, but just addressing individual attitudes to race will not fully ‘explain’ the situation.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 11 March, 2008 10:55 am

    Very interesting analysis about the relationship between individual choice in schools and the systemic effect which leads to something that looks a lot like, but might not be simply, racism.

  2. 11 March, 2008 11:40 am

    Thanks! I usually find that if I ramble away for long enough I’ll get to a thought sometime or another.

  3. 11 March, 2008 1:05 pm

    I actually think you rambled very little in that post. Ramble on…

  4. Ronduck permalink
    11 August, 2008 2:04 am

    I live in the US and I can tell you that White flight was caused by Black violence. If you look at this report it shows that Blacks commit homicide at 7x the White rate, which explains what Whites were trying to shield their children from:

    Although the address says ‘store’ the report is free. When reading this report please remember that lesser crimes are often underreported, this includes bullying at school and often assault.

  5. Clements T Babs. permalink
    8 September, 2008 1:34 am

    I watched with disdain on the CNN the “Segregation of the muslim communities in Australia, and my comments is very simple and direct, Austalian muslims must have to forgo the fundamentalism in the Islamic religion if they really want to be seen as truly peaceful and law abiding citizens, The Islamic fundamentalism is something of the past during the old “otham da Fodio’s empire”.

    This is a new century demanding a new appraoch to our individual religous believes, in a way that violence is not a relevant tool in making your believes known or respected.

    I am a Nigerian born of a Catholic father, and a Muslim mother, and both my parents family have come to terms of respecting each others believes and dogmas, all based on mutual understanding of what is right or wrong. I was schooled in a Catholic institution, and I participated in almost all muslim festivals when it’s time for one, hence I’d been made to understand the contemporay princlple of tolerance and respect for people of different religious background, just as I see it as sinful for a priest who vowed celibacy raising a family in hidding, as I see staunch and respected muslims, drinking liquor in hidding and preaching violence of “Jihad” or “Intifada”, and yet portraying themselves in public as law abiding and non-violent citizens.

    I want to call on the Australian muslims to let-go the most disturbing part of “an eye for an eye” in the Holy Koran, as that is an Obsolate appraoch of the by-gone century, I’d like them to live peacfully, practicing their religious rites as a loving and peacful law abiding citizens. Then, the world can now see who’s who as to the issue of segregation and Racism is concerned, after all, if you live in Rome you behave like a roman, and If you live in Saudi-Arabia, you respect and abid by their laws.

    Our generation does not need violence or segregations, we need more love, understanding, perseverance, and above all respect for each others individual differences. Peace be to you all !!

  6. laura permalink
    1 March, 2010 3:47 pm

    look… im young and im still at school.. i see what happens around me. but i dont do anything to stop it and thats the problem. young kids of other races are being attacked by the white children. it seems accptable to tease a black,asian or any other raced child just because their different. no one ever stamds up people just watch. and that gives thise bullies power. i go to bunbury senior high school in western australia and it is horrible… i feel as if these kids my peers feel as if other raced people are inferior.. its scary because those children being bullied dont say anythin. this could lead to a bigger problem.

  7. 30 July, 2010 12:38 am

    I have read alot of articles about white flight. This is a great concern that Anglo Celtic or European Australian no longer feel safe to live in the areas where they were born and grew up. I attended Warrawong High School in NSW during the late 80’s early 90’s. There was a huge population of “New Australians” that attended the school due to the population of immigrants working at BHP Port Kembla Steelworks. During my schooling years under the labour Government Multicultralism was shoved down our throat. Anything to do with being Australian was never celebrated but if you came from somewhere else well your mother country was top billing. My local soccer clubs was dominated my Macedonians. I was the only aussie in the team. I recall one night at our soccer presentation. My parents were there to see my brother and i get our trophies. When the Macedonian dancing started i wanted to be apart of it as i had not seen it done before. I recall one of the other kids saying to me” Go away skippy you can’t dance your not Macedonian.” I told mum and dad, we left straight away and the following season i played Rugby League with the Aussie kids as i was with people like me. Many years later i have married a Macedonian/Croatian who is very much a proud Australian but holds the same views as me. We are considering where we want to live and where we would like any future children to be schooled. We are concerned about all the worries of “New Australians” and the cultural and religious baggage that comes with that. The cultural Impact of new arrivals is a huge concern for Anglo Celtic or Australian Europeans as assimilation into Australian way of life is not part of them being here. They are here for the better life. Their intention is to live in a rich “Western Version” of their mother country. There is no intention on their part to see their kids playing Rugby League or Cricket. Our nations infrastructure is their pop of cold on which lays the foundation for their new version of back home. As long as the Australian Federal Government lays out the red carpet for immigrants Anglo Celts and Europeans of Australia will white flight long into the future because the majority of us feel like we are losing our home.

  8. RRMG permalink
    24 May, 2011 1:40 pm

    I had to change my family name due to racism in QLD schools. One can find my family name on the hounered service men anzac list. Two of our boys returned to Australia wounded in action. Why was it when we moved to QLD we had to change our last name?

    Although my last name is not Jones it is still the family name of Australian war heros that fought and were wounded for our countries current lack of liberty, and is now made laughing stock by angelo culture in Australia.. I have since removed my children from the QLD schools and the teasing stoped.

    Good luck in destroying what could be a good country, our family has given up trying to educate the brainless, we plan to emigrate as it is the only solution.

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