Racism is too complex to be captured in simple slogans

Distinguished Professor Ien Ang, Director of the UWS Institute for Culture and Society, discusses racism in Australian in the following opinion piece.

‘Is Sydney more racist than Melbourne?’ That’s the question summing up the gist of media interest in the recently released fifth Scanlon Foundation Mapping Social Cohesion national survey.  So much so, that it was even chosen to be title of a debate hosted by the NSW Communty Relations Commission in Sydney on Wednesday. This is unfortunate. Authored by Professor Andrew Markus of Monash University, the survey provides detailed data on social cohesion, immigration and population issues, with the aim to further our understanding of the social impact of Australia’s increasingly diverse immigration program. Naturally, in such a context, the issue of racism is never far away. In our ways of thinking about immigration the spectre of the White Australia Policy and, more recently, of Pauline Hanson, still looms large. Attitudes towards immigration are therefore commonly associated with notions of racial (in) tolerance and discrimination. But does it make sense to simplify the issues into a contest between Australia’s two largest cities? 

The provocative question is typical of the sensationalism which all too often drives media reporting today. But it only obscures the vastly more ambiguous, nuanced and complex picture that emerges from reading Markus’s report. As a consequence we risk overlooking some of the important lessons we might want to draw from the survey. 

The media headlines were prompted by one piece of data coming out of the national survey: namely, that almost 29 per cent of Sydneysiders hold a negative view of Muslims, compared with 15 per cent in Melbourne. This is obviously a worrying difference that demands explanation. Why should this be the case? Rather than declaring simply that Sydney is more ‘racist’ than Melbourne, I would suggest that public hostility against Muslims in Sydney reflects the ongoing cultural impact of the hype around highly divisive incidents such as the Cronulla riots and militant expressions of extremism among some Muslim youth in Sydney (a hype which the media themselves, of course, have helped to create). We need to consider such local contextual issues if we are to address racial tensions in a large, highly diverse metropolitan city such as Sydney, just as understanding race relations in Los Angeles should never overlook the impact of the Rodney King affair on that city’s urban imagination.  

This doesn’t mean that there are no problems in the fabric of Sydney’s multicultural landscape. Markus’s series of surveys provides us with some important indicators and trends which point to some difficult challenges for policy makers and community activists. Demographically, the statistics show that local government areas which have traditionally harboured a high percentage of ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse immigrants, such as Bankstown and Fairfield, have become more so in the past decade. The proportion of people speaking a language other than English at home has increased from 69 to 73% in Fairfield between 2001 and 2011, and from 49 to 60% in Bankstown. In Bankstown, the number of Muslims has almost doubled in the same period, while in Fairfield the number of Buddhists has increased by half. Such figures indicate that these areas harbour increasing concentrations of groups who are different from the Australian mainstream. This no doubt leads to accelerating social and cultural change in these localities, making them increasingly divergent from the average Australian neighbourhood. It is important of course not to stereotype such areas as centres of immigration-related urban stress, as has too often been the case (eg in relation to the Fairfield suburb Cabramatta). Indeed, in many ways these are some of the most vibrant, cosmopolitan areas in metropolitan Sydney, where the majority of people feel that people from different national and ethnic backgrounds get on well together. There is also a lot of dynamic local community work in these areas aimed at enhancing intercultural relations. 

However, Professor Markus’s data also reveal some darker realities, which suggest heightening divisions between the experiences of long-time Australians (who have lived here for three generations or more) and non-English-speaking-background immigrants in these areas. For example, to the question, ‘Would you say that living in your local area is becoming better or worse, or is it unchanged?’, almost 35% of long-time Australians living in areas of high immigrant concentration said worse or much worse, compared to 17% nationally. Among NESB respondents in these areas it was the reverse: more than 36% felt their area was becoming better or much better (compared to 17.5% nationally), while only 15% felt it was becoming worse or much worse. 

Professor Markus is right to conclude that such figures indicate a high level of dissatisfaction among third-generation-plus Australians living in high immigrant areas, and that this is a challenge for government. I would caution however against simply equating such dissatisfaction with heightened xenophobia or racism. To understand more fully what it is like to live in such areas, more fine-grained field research is needed which can get at the local nuances and complexities of living with difference, especially if you feel powerless before the massive transformations in the very fabric of your own neighbourhood. It is too easy for progressives in affluent, middle class suburbs to point the finger at their less advantaged compatriots for their presumed intolerance. The situation needs to be taken more seriously than that.

That these areas face greater intercultural challenges is indicated by some other data from the Scanlon survey. All local respondents, whether 3rd gen plus or NESB, reported much lower levels of trust and sense of safety than the national average. They also, across the board, experience higher levels of discrimination. Even among the long-time Australians locals experienced twice as much discrimination (18%) than nationally (10%), while Muslims experienced the highest level of discrimination (34%) of all religious groups. Only 24% of local Muslims felt most people can be trusted (compared to more than half nationally). 

What emerges from such figures is a high sense of mutual alienation. The overall picture is hardly dystopic, but there are reasons for concern that these areas require more cultural (and economic) resources to establish more cohesive, shared, local civic cultures. In this respect, describing this or that group as either the perpetrators or the victims of ‘racism’ is an especially unproductive blame game.