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Are Australian policies on asylum seekers and Aborigines racist?

26 May, 2011

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?


11 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 May, 2011 3:20 am

    It is justified if that is what is happening. We cannot forget the meaning of the word though. Racism means a world-view where there not only exists different human races, but some races are also better than others. I do not think that is what is happening in Australia. Noone is going around saying that asylum seekers of a certain race is to be treated much worse than asylum seekers of a different race. Or are they? I don’t know. My own interpretation has always been that race is a metaphor for class. Blacks equals low-class and whites equals high-class. And I say it like that because there is no way of determining who belongs to which race, since there is no objective thing as race. Instead, what people ‘actually’ mean when they talk of race, is class. Then, using class in this analysis, it is not only easier to lump together aboriginal Australians with asylum seekers, but also white aboriginal Australians and white asylum seekers.

    Only problem with generalizing and lumping is that people’s existential lives are set aside. And, sadly, race is a real experience in many people’s lives. Social constructions are “real” after all. But so is class, so how to reconcile this. I don’t know.

  2. 27 May, 2011 6:41 pm

    I think I agree that this is about more than just “race” — and class is certainly relevant and often overlooked. But you’re also right that “race” can’t be reduced to class either and that we need to treat it as a social reality even if it doesn’t have a basis in biology. I.e. people have real experiences, make decisions, and so on, based on (social) notions of race.

    My problem with labeling the two policies as “racist” is that it conflates them with racist attitudes that some sections of the Australian community hold. Are we led to believe then that these policies are a “reflection” of these attitudes? Maybe this argument is justified if the primary reason for the existence of both policies are designed to appeal to the xenophobia and racism within the community in order to give political parties an edge in the polls. I think there is certainly something to this notion. But at the same time reducing the policies only to racism obscures what else might be going on. I don’t for a second believe that all the people who support being “tough on asylum seekers” are doing so for racist reasons, nor do I believe that all supporters of the NT intervention are racist. Seeing as some prominent supporters of the intervention, such as Marcia Langton are themselves Aborigines, to describe the intervention as essentially racist is both absurd and more than a little insulting. As far as I can tell, many of the supporters of the intervention are genuinely concerned about dealing with various “problems” in Aboriginal communities. They feel that previous policies have not been working and they want to do something different. Why should “racism” trump all these motives? Of course you can argue about the pros and cons of the policies, but to label one side as racist is hardly a very useful, or accurate, move.

    If we’re looking for something that links the two policies maybe we should think more in terms of states and their attempts to manage certain “problem” populations — populations that challenge the state’s goal of establishing perfect control over the whole social body. Maybe it’s the fact that asylum seekers and remote Aborigines challenge the regulatory capacities of the state that is significant. Both represent “intractable” problems: the asylum seekers keep coming and coming, seemingly without end, and Aborigines have so far resisted taking on the sort of bourgeois habitus that the state expects from its citizens, despite decades of well-meaning therapeutic “interventions” by health care officials, teachers, anthropologists and other agents of the state (for a great take on this, see Tess Lea’s book Bureaucrats and Bleeding Hearts.

    If we want to link the policies maybe we could do so through the theories of Girgio Agamben here and especially his notion of “states of exception”. Policies directed at both Aborigines and asylum seekers show a tendency to create states of exception as part of their strategy of dealing with the “problem”. In the case of asylum seekers it has been to excise areas of the immigration zone, such as Christmas Island, so that asylum seekers could be incarcerated and processed without having recourse to Australian immigration laws. The so-called Pacific Solution of the Howard government and the current government’s plans to send asylum seekers to Malaysia are also extensions of this logic — where the attempt to quarantine the social body from “pollution” becomes a transnational strategy of governance. In the case of the NT intervention, the state of exception is expressed in the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act and the application of laws directed only at Aborigines. The justification of the intervention was in terms of an “emergency” — i.e. the abuse of children — which required extraordinary action. In both cases the objects of these policies, as targets of intervention could be said to be reduced to “bare life” in the sense that they are stripped of rights and find themselves in a different category from normative citizens. Asylum seekers literally lose their freedom while Aborigines have their incomes controlled and are subjected to other exceptional rules. In the case of asylum seekers the approach is more punitive while in the case of Aborigines it is more paternalistic and therapeutic, but the similarities are also striking. The fact that asylum seekers have also used their bodies to protest their incarceration, through hunger strikes, self-mutilation, attempted suicide, also fit within Agamben’s theories.

    So what I’m trying to say is that maybe it would be better to link the policies towards asylum seekers and NT Aborigines in terms of theories of states, biopolitics and so forth rather than the much vaguer and emotive notion of racism. I think this would allow people to get a much better handle on what is going on and to truly locate these two policies within a specific history of governance in Australia.

  3. 28 May, 2011 10:09 pm

    I don’t know about racism, but just check how often the Australian media use the phrase “suspected asylum seekers”. I don’t know whether Australia is racist, but its media certainly protray it as a very selfish, uncaring, me-first, blame-the-victim society.

    Note, it is not others doing this, it is the Australian media who use this phrase, and make seeking asylum sound like some sort of crime.

  4. Ansell Cuff permalink
    10 June, 2011 7:50 am

    Well the Australian Government now need to speak, and let the world the fact of tihs matter.Will or can they settle it. An the other hand, living in dineal is a very dangerous game. The do have there agenda, and
    frankly what else is new about racism in down yonder.

  5. Ian Bear permalink
    18 January, 2012 12:54 am

    No link can be made as asylum policies discrimate on the grounds of nationality and he right to live in Australia. Not all discrimination is wrong and most countries have entry policies.

  6. ben permalink
    20 March, 2013 2:01 pm

    “. And I say it like that because there is no way of determining who belongs to which race, since there is no objective thing as race.”


  7. Jovan Maud permalink*
    20 March, 2013 5:17 pm

    Thanks for your comment Ben. I’m not sure what your point is though. Are you claiming that the links you provided support or contradict the statement you’ve quoted? Or are you making a different point entirely?

  8. ben permalink
    29 March, 2013 7:27 pm

    ” Are you claiming that the links you provided support or contradict the statement you’ve quoted? Or are you making a different point entirely?”

    Anthropology is so wide off the mark when it comes to race that I felt it necessary to drop a few links, so that other who read this blog might actually take the correct position on race, which is agnosticism.

    Thank you

  9. 29 March, 2013 7:37 pm

    There is no “correct position” on race. We only deal in science. And science tells us that race is a social construction. Nothing more, nothing less.

  10. 29 March, 2013 7:40 pm

    ….and since we like to post links, I cannot be any worse:

  11. 11 December, 2013 7:54 pm

    Although this is an old post, reading it has been so very enlightening, especially the language used and the clarification of a few often-confused points. A significant percentage of the people I meet require me to be an expert on cultural matters relating to all dark-skinned people in Australia, to explain the behaviour of and governmental policies relating to indigenous Australians and asylum seekers, and to identify and validate my ethnic background as a matter of course. They do not consider me to be Australian even when they have been informed that I was born in Melbourne. My Year-11 technical school education did not equip me for such discourse, but what has been discussed here helps me to clarify my position and at the very least, use correct terminology. I know Australia is not a racist country, however I strongly disagree with different rules for different groups of people, I find it dangerous territory when, no matter which way we slice it, Australia is either or tending towards a multicultural society.

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