Who is to blame for racism in Australia?

by Tess Lee Ack • Published 12 July 2012

The only thing stopping politicians from doing the ethically right thing for refugees is the fear of losing the votes of the rednecks.

– Letter to The Age, 19 May 2011.

This letter encapsulates a widely held idea: that on questions of racism, politicians simply capitulate to pressure from the electorate, specifically from “ignorant” or “uneducated” people and “rednecks” – all of which are code for blue collar workers. It is a view held not just by anti-working class right wingers, but also by liberals; and even when not explicitly stated, it underlies and informs much of the commentary about racism in Australia, both today and in the past.

Examples of this attitude are not hard to find. An Age editorial condemning Julia Gillard’s plan to send asylum seekers to Malaysia for processing is rightly critical of both Labor and Coalition refugee policy, but rather than denouncing them as racists, accuses them merely of “pandering to the fears of xenophobes”.[1] In his recent book Panic, liberal journalist David Marr, a regular critic of Labor and Coalition refugee policy, attacks Gillard on much the same grounds. He describes her as “indulging the fearful” in the lead-up to the August 2010 federal election. Quoting her pronouncement: “My view is many in the community should feel anxious when they see asylum seeker boats… For people to say they’re anxious about border security doesn’t make them intolerant, it certainly doesn’t make them a racist”, Marr comments: “Her rhetoric was focus-group perfect.”[2] In other words, Gillard may be appalling, but she is pushed to make such racist statements to win the votes of the “rednecks”. Politicians are cowards for not standing up to the racist “mob” (another code word).

Such an approach – apart from revealing middle class elitism towards the mass of ordinary people – lets the politicians off the hook. Apparently they have no other reason to adopt racist policies and rhetoric than fear of retribution at the ballot box. But the reality is that politicians do not reflect the racism of their constituency, they actively promote it. Even more importantly, such a focus absolves the capitalist class, in whose interests Labor and Coalition governments alike invariably act, from any role in or responsibility for the racism that has blighted Australian society ever since the British invasion, and from which they have benefited enormously. For most historians and the liberal media commentariat, the framework is almost invariably one in which racism is driven from the bottom of society, not from the top.

This attitude parallels the dominant view that the adoption of the White Australia policy was wholly or mainly driven by a racist working class in order to protect jobs and wages. The fact that our rulers, then and now, have their own economic and other reasons for fomenting racism is rarely even acknowledged, much less analysed.

This article will challenge that accepted wisdom and argue that racism is a product of capitalism and is firmly embedded in the capitalist state; it is driven by the ruling class, who benefit from it in a range of ways. The promotion of racist ideas is assisted by their middle class supporters, especially those in the media and academia, whose position gives them substantial influence over the shaping of public opinion. This is not at all to deny the extent to which racism exists in the working class. But while workers can and do take up racist ideas (and at times act on them in terrible ways), racism does not arise spontaneously from their ranks; in fact it is inimical to the material interests of the working class. When workers, in Australia or anywhere else, accept nationalist and racist ideas, it undermines class solidarity and helps to bind them more closely to their own ruling class. The scapegoating of particular groups – refugees, Indigenous people, migrants – divides workers against each other, gets in the way of them understanding who their real enemies are and thus seriously weakens their capacity to resist exploitation. Racism is therefore an important weapon in the armoury of the ruling class.

For a period in the 1970s racism in Australia was pushed back, thanks partly to the radicalisation of the time and determined campaigning by anti-racists. From the mid-1980s, however, racism began to re-emerge and, especially after the election of the first (Liberal) Howard government in 1996, became a dominant theme of Australian politics. The main targets of racism in this period have been Indigenous people and refugees, particularly asylum seekers who arrive by boat. But racist policies like the Northern Territory Intervention, attempts to “stop the boats” and the indefinite incarceration of asylum seekers, including children, all continued – or got worse – under the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments, with Gillard in particular engaging in a “race to the bottom” with Liberal leader Tony Abbott as they canvassed ever more brutal strategies for “stopping the boats”. It is worth remembering that it was Labor that introduced mandatory detention in 1992. Racism in Australia is a bipartisan affair; there are no differences of principle between the major parties, only of degree.

Manifestations of racism in Australia over the past twenty years or so include attacks on Aboriginal land rights (responses to the Mabo and Wik decisions on native title) and self-determination (the abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) and the Northern Territory Intervention; the rise of Pauline Hanson and her racist One Nation party; the Tampa incident, when the Howard government refused to allow a Norwegian ship that had rescued asylum seekers to land; the “children overboard” scandal, when government ministers falsely claimed that asylum seekers had threatened to throw their children out of their boat; the Cronulla riot of 2005, when a racist mob went on a violent rampage – to a large extent instigated by right wing radio shock jocks – draping themselves in Australian flags as they attacked anyone of “Middle Eastern appearance”; the Haneef affair, which saw an Indian doctor falsely accused, with government connivance, of involvement in a terrorist attack. The list goes on – these are only some of the major events. You could add regular panics about “ethnic gangs” and the relentless demonisation of Muslims since 9/11, with calls to “ban the burqa”, opposition to the building of mosques and Islamic schools, the use of racial profiling by police in Melbourne to harass and victimise African immigrants and so on. An examination of these events reveals the role of the state in whipping up racism, how sections of the media and the middle class intelligentsia have helped them and how racism has served the interests of Australia’s capitalist class.

Rehabilitating racism

In 1984, the conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey triggered an offensive against multiculturalism by criticising the level of Asian immigration. As well as generating a revival of anti-Asian racist activity, this “succeeded in returning to the mainstream assumptions that multiculturalism was potentially divisive because it accorded special privileges to minorities and undermined cultural homogeneity. In particular, Blainey was influential in labelling multiculturalism as the product of a powerful minority lobby and an ‘industry’ that had captured the ear of government.”[3] Others were quick to jump on Blainey’s racist bandwagon.

In the same year, Hugh Morgan embarked on a racist campaign denigrating Aboriginal culture, with preposterous claims that land rights would promote cannibalism and infanticide. Morgan was the CEO of Western Mining (WMC), one of Australia’s largest mining corporations (he inherited the position from his father), and had been the president of the Mining Industry Council from 1981 to 1983. As such, he profited directly from the expropriation of Aboriginal land.

John Howard, then leader of the opposition Liberal Party, welcomed Blainey’s comments. Howard planned to build on the economic “reforms” of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, emulating the neoliberal attacks of his political idols, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. However, he was perceptive enough to realise that a program of privatisation, deregulation and welfare cuts was not a recipe for electoral success, so he turned to racism as a key element in a range of conservative social policies, launching his own attack on Asian immigration in 1988. This was not welcomed by those Australian capitalists who favoured increased immigration to expand the workforce and who feared that Howard’s overt racism could threaten investment and trade by offending Asian capitalists. He was dumped from the Liberal leadership in 1989. The new leader, John Hewson, went to the supposedly “unlosable” 1993 election on a neoliberal platform including the introduction of a goods and services tax (GST), confident that the widespread hostility to the Labor government would be enough to see him installed in the Lodge. He was wrong, and the Liberals turned back to Howard, who toned down his anti-Asian racism in deference to business concerns. But this did not reflect any change in Howard’s racist spots. The years since his election victory in 1996 have seen racism return to the centre of Australian politics with a vengeance.

Howard’s government lasted until 2007 and will always be remembered for its record of racism, with Indigenous people, asylum seekers who arrive by boat and migrants who supposedly don’t accept “Australian values” at the sharp end. It didn’t start with Howard though. Labor governments had paved the way in every instance, and despite the anti-racist campaigns that played a role in Howard’s demise and some token gestures in the early period of the Rudd government, Labor continued and in some ways accelerated the attacks on these groups.

Attacks on land rights

In the 1990s there was a sustained and viciously racist attack on Aboriginal land rights in response to the High Court’s Mabo decision of 1992. Mabo was largely a moral victory; it applied only to Crown land, and Indigenous people had to prove a continuous relationship with any land they claimed; and given the forced removal of Aboriginal people from their traditional lands and relocation to reserves, missions and the like, this has proved extremely difficult. But even these strictly limited land rights were seen as a threat to Australian capital and gave rise to a racist backlash led by big business. This backlash, as Diane Fieldes has shown, “originated not in some racist groundswell by ordinary people but from the highest echelons of society, assisted by their hired mouthpieces in the media and academia”. [4]

The Keating government, for all its rhetoric about “justice and reconciliation”, was quick to demonstrate its overriding loyalty to the interests of the mining and pastoral companies. The Native Title Act of 1993 set out to limit the impact of Mabo; significantly, it guaranteed pastoral leases and denied Indigenous people’s right to veto mining even when native title had been successfully claimed.

The Wik decision of 1996 gave Howard an opportunity to build on the racist backlash. While conceding that native title rights could coexist with the rights of pastoralists in very limited ways, Wik actually enshrined the overriding rights of pastoralists. But this wasn’t enough for the pastoralists and conservative leaders, who demanded that native title be completely extinguished on pastoral leases. The government dutifully responded with an aggressive campaign of racist fearmongering, reviving unfounded claims about people’s backyards being subject to land rights claims, with images of Howard standing in front of a map of Australia which gave the utterly false impression that most of the country was up for grabs.

The government’s response to Wik was the so-called Ten Point Plan, which formed the basis of the Native Title Amendment Act. This not only effectively extinguished native title on pastoral leases, but also on a range of other land tenures, vacant Crown land in towns and cities and over waterways and airspace, delivering, in the words of National Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer, “bucket loads of extinguishment”.

Pauline Hanson

Pauline Hanson burst onto the Australian political scene in 1996. She was disendorsed as the Liberal candidate for the federal seat of Oxley after she wrote a racist letter attacking Indigenous people to an Ipswich newspaper. She subsequently stood as an independent and won the seat. In her maiden speech to the House of Representatives in September 1996, she continued her attack on Indigenous people as a “privileged class” and warned that Australia was in danger of being “swamped” by Asians. Howard, now Prime Minister, found nothing to criticise, instead welcoming her racist diatribe as a blow to “political correctness” and a triumph for “free speech”.

Hanson certainly got more than her fair share of “free speech”. How many politicians get their maiden speech printed in full in the daily newspapers? The media – even when they editorialised against her views – reported her every utterance, followed her every move and made her a celebrity. In the Foreword to a book of essays on the Hanson phenomenon, Robert Manne comments: “For many ordinary people she became a heroine… When she appeared on television her views seemed to command overwhelming approval. When she arrived in country towns or walked through shopping malls her progress was cheered.”[5]

But who were these “ordinary people”? In the liberal media, Hanson’s supporters were characterised (and sneered at) as “rednecks”, “ignorant”, “uneducated” and so on – conjuring up images of blue collar workers in the western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. But when journalist Phillip Adams attended a meeting of One Nation (the party Hanson formed in April 1997), he found a somewhat different audience:

Though the meeting was crowded, it seemed all but devoid of the promised rednecks. Many of the people arrived in BMWs and Volvos – clearly comfortable members of the middle class. And we now know that a sizeable flow of donations to Hanson come from Sydney’s north shore, from the enclaves established by wealthy whites fleeing Mandela’s South Africa.[6]

For the social historian Janet McCalman, “small business-people, the retired and small farmers” – not “the classic Aussie battlers”, like the unemployed, but “the classic Aussie whingers”– were the sort of people drawn to the One Nation cause.[7]

Murray Goot, professor of politics at Macquarie University, analysed a series of opinion polls from 1996 to 1998, and came up with some interesting conclusions. He noted that “Many of those attracted to One Nation are voters who would otherwise support one or other of the Coalition parties – with the National Party, proportionately, bearing the greater loss.”[8] This was confirmed in June 1998, when One Nation – helped by Liberal and National preferences – won nearly 23 percent of the vote and eleven seats in the Queensland state election, discussed further below.

In his Foreword, Manne praises Murray Goot’s “illuminating critique of the Hanson movement’s male, blue collar social roots” – but Goot’s conclusions are actually somewhat more nuanced than this. On the one hand, “The party is peculiarly dependent on voters who have no tertiary education; who, at every age level, are men; and who have blue-collar jobs.” But “retired [people] are more likely than those with jobs to support One Nation” while “Hanson does not appear to loom large to the unemployed”. However, he notes that “the polls, regrettably, offer no insights into the political preferences of small business operators; in the Morgan poll, the only poll that classifies its data by occupation, those running small businesses are grouped under ‘professionals, managers and owners’ or ‘skilled trades’ and lost to view.”[9] That is, at least some of those classified as blue collar workers may in fact have been skilled tradespeople running small businesses. Goot concludes on a note of caution (which Manne does not appear to have read):

It is tempting to construct an identikit model of the voter whom One Nation attracts – a poorly educated male, over 50, living in rural or regional Australia and dependent on a blue collar job. But the temptation is best resisted. This model might describe the common (modal) One Nation voter – a victim of restructuring, facing a world whose values have moved on. Yet voters who match this model would account for only a fraction of the party’s vote.[10] [emphasis added]

Mick Armstrong’s detailed analysis of who actually voted for One Nation in the 1998 Queensland state election further erodes the notion that her support came mainly from the blue collar working class. He found that One Nation’s support was strongest in what had been National Party strongholds in south-east Queensland – polling 43.5 percent of the vote in Barambah, once the electorate of the former right wing Queensland Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and over 30 percent in eleven other seats in this area, compared with a statewide average of 22.7 percent. Moreover,

South-east Queensland has a high concentration of small farmers, and numerous small towns with a large number of small businesses – newsagents, petrol stations, real estate agents, pharmacists, accountants, farm equipment suppliers – but very few large workplaces with concentrations of unionised workers.[11]

The general pattern was that Labor did better in the bigger towns but One Nation overwhelmed them in the smaller centres. So the core base of One Nation is the “small town middle class, not – as so many commentators repeat ad nauseam – ‘ignorant’ workers.” Actually, very few blue collar workers defected from Labor to Hanson. Overall, 80 percent of the Hanson vote came from conservative parties and 20 percent from Labor. In addition, while its highest votes were in rural areas, One Nation polled better in affluent middle class areas of Brisbane and the Gold Coast than in poorer working class areas. Armstrong concludes: “It was not the ‘enlightened’ middle class that most strongly rejected Hanson, but unionised, traditional Labor-voting urbanised workers”.

From the beginning Howard tailed after Hanson’s racism, saying that he “understood” (and by implication shared) the “legitimate concerns” of her supporters. For a period he “used Hanson as a proxy to tap racist sentiments for his own purposes, learning from and legitimising her views. His pronouncements on Hanson were a ‘dog-whistle’, they conveyed his own very lightly coded racist views to a target audience without being explicit and thus alienating those who might be disturbed by more overtly racist statements.”[12]

Many in the business community however were alarmed by the rising level of support for Hanson’s anti-Asian policies – not because they opposed racism, but because it was bad for business. This became clear when the Business Council of Australia, along with the Council of Social Services, religious leaders – and, disgracefully, the ACTU – issued a joint statement which condemned One Nation’s Asian immigration policy but ignored its equally vile and vociferous racism towards Indigenous people. This was no oversight: anti-Aboriginal racism is good for business and featured prominently in the business community’s campaign against native title.

When the Queensland state election revealed the extent of One Nation’s electoral threat to the conservative parties, Howard’s indulgent attitude hardened. He entrusted his attack dog, Tony Abbott, with the task of destroying One Nation organisationally, using the courts. But the aim was only to remove an electoral rival and nuisance, not to repudiate racism. The government, prominent liberal commentators and most of the media were hostile to the anti-racist mobilisations against Hanson. Attempts to shut down her meetings for example were characterised as “violent” and condemned for “attacking free speech”.

The effective demise of One Nation did not lead to any decline in the Howard government’s racism. While there was less talk about Asian immigration, in deference to business interests, attacks on Indigenous people continued unabated. Despite widespread popular support for an apology to the stolen generations following the release of the Bringing Them Home report in 1997, Howard refused, defending the genocidal practice on the basis that it was “well-intended” and insisting that Australians today had nothing to apologise for. The report’s recommendations, like those of the 1991 Royal Commission report on Aboriginal deaths in custody, were largely ignored.

The “bucket loads of extinguishment” of native title rights delivered by the Howard government was not enough to satisfy Australian capital, especially the mining industry which wanted to get its hands on even more mineral-rich Aboriginal land. In support of this, the Howard government started talking about “economically unviable” Aboriginal communities in remote areas, complaining about the cost of delivering basic services to them and insisting that the “experiment” of Aboriginal self-determination had failed. In 2004 the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was abolished amid hyped claims of corruption and dysfunction and vilification of Aboriginal leaders.

The Intervention

The Northern Territory Emergency Response, known as the Intervention, opened up a new and terrible phase in attacks on Indigenous rights. Using the pretext of what turned out to be false claims about endemic sexual abuse of children, Howard sent troops into Indigenous communities, installed white “business managers” to run them, caused immeasurable hardship by introducing “income management” and signalled plans to force communities off their land and into “hub towns”. Alongside the wholly spurious concern for Aboriginal women and children went a racist offensive depicting Aboriginal men as violent, drunken, drug-crazed paedophiles and Indigenous communities as being incapable of managing their own affairs; and beneath it lay a cold-blooded determination to accommodate the demands and ambitions of Australian capitalists. The Western Australian Pastoralists and Graziers Association hailed the Intervention:

We’ve been advocating what Howard’s suggesting should happen now for the last 40 years. We’ve been suspicious of the way that Aboriginal affairs have been going ever since there was the equal opportunity and wage decisions made back in the sixties.[13]

The Intervention was certainly not a response to racist agitation from below. In 2000, after a decade of racist hysteria about the supposed threat posed by land rights, almost a million people (over 300,000 in Sydney alone) took part in “reconciliation walks” around the country in support of Aboriginal rights;[14] such was the popular mood that even Deputy PM Peter Costello felt compelled to take part. To sell the Intervention and disguise its real purpose, Howard needed support from outside government ranks to lend his project greater credibility, give it a humanitarian façade and put Indigenous people and their supporters on the defensive. Liberal media such as the ABC and The Age, along with a range of middle class liberals – including Aboriginal leaders such as Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton – obliged. How this occurred is dealt with in detail by Diane Fieldes in the first issue of this journal.[15]

The failure to act on black deaths in custody exposes the “concern” for Indigenous people expressed by politicians and the liberal media for the hypocritical cant that it is. Since 1991, more than two hundred Indigenous people have died while in police custody or detention, and incarceration rates have soared – from 14 percent of the prison population in 1991 to over a quarter in 2011[16] (although Indigenous people make up only about three percent of the Australian population). Yet where are the media campaigns about this scandal?

The Labor Opposition supported the Intervention, and although it expressed some reservations and signalled its intention when re-elected to fully reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act (which had to be suspended to allow the blatant discrimination embodied in the Intervention), this has so far not occurred. Rudd earned some kudos for finally making the apology to the stolen generations, but this was a largely token gesture (compensation was swiftly ruled out) and under his and Gillard’s governments, the Intervention continued without missing a beat, presided over by the supposedly left wing minister Jenny Macklin.


The Howard government’s demonisation of asylum seekers who arrive by boat and of Muslims and Arab people from the Middle East, especially following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, is well-documented.[17] In the lead-up to the 2001 federal election, the government was deeply unpopular and Labor’s prospects were good. The journalists David Marr and Marian Wilkinson have described how Howard appealed to and encouraged fears of an “invasion” by “Muslim boat people”, using the Tampa and “children overboard” incidents to wedge Labor and win the election.[18] The following comments recorded in an SBS-Ipsos Report on Immigration are telling:

The Tampa incident really legitimised racism in this country. From that time it’s been okay to speak out against other races. Before that people might have had an opinion about other races, but you kept it in your back pocket. Now it’s almost okay to be racist: it’s like the government’s given you permission.


It’s all been pretty laid back – until now. Now we have comments from people like Peter Costello targeting Muslims. You get the impression that the government would prefer to have a monoculture.[19]

Fostering hostility towards Muslims was a deliberate strategy which served a number of purposes. It was used to justify the crimes conducted under the umbrella of the War on Terror: principally the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the trashing of civil liberties with new anti-terror laws that extended and strengthened the repressive apparatus available to the state, and the inhuman treatment of desperate asylum seekers and refugees. (The last did not only affect Arab people and Muslims: Tamils fleeing the genocidal war being waged against them by the government of Sri Lanka, with the full approval of the Australian government, were also painted as terrorists.) On the one hand, Islamophobia was an attempt to unite the majority of the population behind the War on Terror and the US Alliance; on the other it created divisions which could only benefit the ruling class, by diverting discontent away from the government’s neoliberal economic policies.

Once again, it wasn’t just right wingers who led the charge; there were plenty of liberals in the middle class and media who were happy to bolster the government’s case, especially as Labor had completely capitulated to Howard’s racist agenda. Middle class feminists like Age columnist Pamela Bone supported the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan on the basis of liberating the women of those countries. From mid-2005, Howard and his ministers focused their attack directly on Muslims in Australia. Virginia Hausseger, an ABC presenter and regular columnist in the liberal press, joined the likes of Liberal politicians Cory Bernardi and Bronwyn Bishop in calling for the burqa to be banned.[20] There were numerous newspaper articles and television programs questioning the ability of Muslims to integrate into Australian society; sensationalised beat-ups about Muslim terrorists in our midst, and so on.

Anti-Muslim sentiment whipped up in this way was directed against asylum seekers as well as Muslims and people of Middle Eastern background already living here. However, years of determined campaigning by refugee activists, and the protests of refugees themselves, helped build sympathy for asylum seekers, while a series of scandals (such as the locking up of Cornelia Rau, a permanent resident, and the deportation of Vivian Alvarez Solon, an Australian citizen) made Howard’s refugee policy something of a liability; he was forced to make some concessions and a decline in hostility towards refugees was an element in his defeat in the 2007 election.

Despite undertakings to improve the situation for refugees, the Rudd government did little apart from abolishing Howard’s Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs). The numbers in detention – including children – continued to grow. With initiatives such as the “Malaysia solution”,[21] the Gillard government plumbed new depths of cruelty in its attempts to outdo Liberal leader Tony Abbott’s racism.

The success of the bipartisan campaign to demonise asylum seekers who arrive by boat is demonstrated by the level of ignorance surrounding the issue. A 2011 Scanlon Foundation survey found that fewer than one in four respondents correctly estimated numbers who come by boat – the rest overestimated, some very considerably.[22] This reflects the scaremongering and sensationalism around the issue by politicians and media – used deliberately to obscure the real facts. The survey also found that:

Views on asylum correlate with views on immigration, as well as…national identity and cultural diversity…

Those who would prevent landing have a stronger connection to what they see as the “Australian way of life”, are some four times more likely to think that immigration is too high, to hold negative views of Muslims and to disagree with government assistance to ethnic minorities; they are six times more likely to disagree that a diverse immigration intake is of benefit to Australia.[23]

This indicates that Islamophobia has both drawn on and been integrated into an older racist framework. But the report also contains some grounds for optimism. For a start, in the ranking of the most important problems facing Australia today, asylum seekers (grouped with immigration and population issues) came in at fourth. Issues related to the economy, unemployment and poverty came first by a long way, followed by environmental issues and then issues related to the quality of government and political leadership.[24] And given the sustained and relentless campaign against Muslims and asylum seekers for well over a decade, it is somewhat surprising to find that, while the level of negative sentiment towards Islam is considerably higher than for Christianity and Buddhism, a large majority (72 percent) indicated that they were positive or neutral; and that as many as 22 percent believe that asylum seekers who come by boat should be allowed to apply for permanent residence.[25]

A poll conducted by Essential Media Communications in January 2011[26] made a number of interesting findings. To begin with, racist attitudes towards Muslims are more common among Coalition supporters (who are generally more middle class) than among Labor supporters (who are still overwhelmingly working class). In response to the question: “Are you concerned about the number of Muslim people in Australia?”, 69 percent of Liberal/National voters responded in the affirmative, compared with 50 percent of Labor voters and 32 percent of Greens voters. Similarly, despite 15 years of attacks on multiculturalism by the Coalition parties, 57 percent overall had a positive attitude to multiculturalism, and again, Labor voters had a more positive attitude than Coalition voters (65 percent compared to 54 percent). And significantly, the poll revealed that the great majority of people see through the politicians’ scapegoating. Only 27 percent (21 percent of Labor voters) believed that when politicians raise issues of race and religion they are genuinely concerned about Australia’s future.

These figures indicate that racism in the working class is overstated, while middle class racism is understated. But, along with the findings of the Scanlon survey, they also show the potential to combat racism, if there were the forces prepared to make a sustained argument. However, as virtually every manifestation of racism in recent times has shown, such forces are thin on the ground – and certainly not to be found in the ranks of the politicians of either side. Far from campaigning against racism, as the following examples show, they have either pretended it does not exist, made excuses for it or deliberately inflamed it.

In the first week of December 2005, Howard pushed through WorkChoices, scrapped student unions and abolished welfare rights for hundreds of thousands of people. These issues however were relegated to the back pages as a racist riot at Sydney’s Cronulla beach dominated press and TV headlines around the country. The violent attacks on anyone with dark skin (the targets were Lebanese but any non-white would do) did not come out of the blue. The state Labor government had run scaremongering campaigns about “Lebanese gangs” since the 1990s; the War on Terror and Howard’s attacks on Australian Muslims in the wake of the July 2005 London bombings gave the green light to Muslim-bashing.

The radio shock-jock Alan Jones – a fervent Howard supporter and a wealthy member of the Sydney establishment long associated with the conservative side of politics – played a leading role in inciting the riot, calling for “a community show of force” against “Middle Eastern grubs”. Jones was later found to have breached the Australian Communications and Media Authority Code of Conduct, as his comments were “likely to encourage violence or brutality and to vilify people of Lebanese and Middle Eastern backgrounds on the basis of ethnicity”.[27] But he did not receive so much as a slap on the wrist; as far as his employers and other authorities were concerned, he was just exercising “free speech”.

The NSW Police Commissioner among others described the Cronulla rioters as “un-Australian”, but as the historian Marilyn Lake asked, “what is un-Australian about calling for racial exclusion in the name of the nation? Is not racial exclusion a deep part of our heritage, as traditional an Australian value as mateship?”[28]

Naturally the authorities could not be seen to condone the racist riot. Politicians of both sides – no doubt with an eye to Australia’s “international image” – condemned the riot while denying that there was any racist dimension to it. Howard claimed it was primarily an issue of law and order, and his deputy Peter Costello described it as “an example of hoodlums who got out of control”.[29] They were echoed by Kim Beazley, then Labor leader, for whom it was “simply criminal behaviour, that’s all there is to it”.[30] The NSW Labor government used the events to rush through laws giving the police new powers and increasing prison sentences.

In the media initial condemnation of the racists was largely subsumed by criticism directed at the predominantly young people from the Lebanese community who organised to retaliate. The “balanced” coverage of the liberal media blamed both sides for the violence, drawing no distinction between the racists who initiated it and the victims who responded to defend themselves. The right wing media made excuses for the racists and used it as a pretext for more Muslim-bashing. Dr Nahid Kabir carried out a detailed analysis of the saturation coverage of the Cronulla riot and its aftermath (headlines, text, photos, cartoons and the juxtaposition of these items) in The Australian from 12 to 18 December 2005. She found a consistent pattern of conflating the Lebanese community with “Muslim extremists” and concluded that “the message reverberating in The Australian during this period was clear: Muslim extremists pose a threat to Australian national security” and that the event “was generally an occasion to cast aspersions on ‘Muslim Australians’.”[31] Kabir’s paper also highlights how The Australian used eminently respectable authorities to support its racist stand. For example, Dr Mark Lopez, author of The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics, was quoted as saying that “locals in the Sutherland Shire…had taken ‘a lot of shit’ from Muslim youths”;[32] the next day James Jupp, director of the Centre for Immigration and Multicultural Studies at the Australian National University, made the following disgusting statement:

There is no doubt some of these young Lebanese guys have an aggressive attitude towards women. They get this from their parents: women in the Middle East are often seen as sisters, mothers or whores [Kabir’s emphasis]. The daughters are very tightly controlled but the blokes do what they like. When they see girls on the beach walking around virtually naked, they get very excited about it.[33]

Kabir also refers to an opinion piece by Keith Windschuttle, editor of the right wing journal Quadrant, who claims that the extent of racism in Australian history, especially towards Indigenous people, has been grossly exaggerated (and even fabricated) by bleeding heart left wing historians. His piece, “It’s not a race war, it’s a clash of cultures” (16 December 2005) and a report published the next day about Australians of Lebanese background marrying within their community (unlike white Anglo-Australians?) both drew on research by the demographer Robert Birrell who is notorious for his constant calls for immigration to be cut.

Unlike its News Ltd stablemates such as the Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph, The Australian is not a paper with a large working class readership. Its target audience is the middle class and the business community – though of course all these newspapers reflect the political views of their owner, Rupert Murdoch. The Murdoch press does not simply pander to the prejudices of its working class readers – it seeks to reinforce them and to actively stir up racism when it is politically expedient to do so, not just among workers, but among the middle class.

But one of the most sickening media responses to Cronulla came from the ABC. On 8 July 2007 its religious affairs program Compass ran a story about Ali Ammar, a 16-year-old Lebanese-Australian. He and some friends had joined others mobilising in response to the racist riot. Ali climbed the local RSL club’s flagpole and threw the Australian flag down to his mates, who quite understandably spat and urinated on it before burning it. Ali was arrested and spent seven months in juvenile detention. Under all sorts of pressure, he later apologised for his actions. Here’s how the ABC website describes what followed:

His remorse was real and so touched RSL State President Don Rowe he invited him to carry a flag at the ANZAC Day march.… RSL members were outraged. The shock-jocks had a field day. The offer was withdrawn, but another remarkable plan was hatched to allow the boy to say sorry publicly and to experience first-hand why the Australian flag is so important for so many: Ali Ammar would walk across the legendary Kokoda track. Compass had exclusive access to follow Ali’s redemptive journey.[34]

Apparently none of the racists needed “redemption”. Indeed, the trek, as depicted in the transcript of the program, was an exercise in reinforcing and legitimising Australian nationalism and militarism.

Blaming the victims

The climate of racism that has been assiduously fostered by the ruling class has not only impacted on Muslims and people of Middle Eastern background. In 2008 Indian taxi drivers in Melbourne and Adelaide demonstrated against racist assaults, including the killing of one taxi driver, and the following year there were protests by Indian students in response to widespread racist abuse and physical attacks. Their protests were as much about the disgusting response of the authorities as the attacks themselves. Victims complained that police were both reluctant and slow to respond to attacks, and often displayed racism towards them, or blamed the victims themselves for the assaults. For example, the Victorian Police Chief Commissioner Simon Overland advised Indian students to “look as poor as you can” as a strategy to avoid being assaulted. “Don’t display your iPods, don’t display your valuable watch, don’t display your valuable jewellery,” he exhorted them, adding that they should avoid living in Melbourne’s poorer suburbs where crime rates are higher, or working in late-night convenience stores where there was greater risk of attack. [35]

These events led to considerable concern in India, with Indian student organisations calling on their government to declare Australia an “unsafe destination for Indian students”. Fearing a drop in the numbers of Indian and other international students, Australian governments scrambled to play down the extent of the attacks and to deny that they were motivated by racism. Australia’s (Labor) immigration minister at the time was Chris Evans, who said: “There’s been a lot of concern inside India and there’s been, I think, some fairly hysterical reporting of what’s occurred.”[36] Some in the media used comments like this to turn the attack back onto Indians. You can always rely on the Herald-Sun’s Andrew Bolt, of course, but the liberal press were no better. Tim Colebatch of The Age complained that Indian TV networks ignored the higher murder rate in India,[37] which may be true but is hardly relevant to issues of racism in Australia.

Gautam Gupta of the Federation of Indian Students in Australia rightly argued that “institutional racism in the police force and the media and political elites means Australia is ill-equipped to deal with the problem in an open, honest manner”.[38] Evidence of this emerged in 2010, when a number of Victorian police officers – including three superintendants and several inspectors – sent around emails with a video of an Indian train passenger being electrocuted and suggested that this could be a way to “fix Melbourne’s Indian student problem”.[39]

Other migrant groups have also experienced increased levels of racism, especially Africans, many of whom came as refugees. One particularly outrageous example of this was the response of Kevin Andrews, at the time the Immigration Minister in the Howard government, to the fatal bashing of 19-year-old Sudanese refugee Liep Gony in Melbourne in September 2007. In a textbook case of blaming the victim, Andrews used this incident to cut the number of immigrants admitted from Sudan, saying:

I have been concerned that some groups don’t seem to be settling and adjusting into the Australian way of life as quickly as we would hope and therefore it makes sense…to slow down the rate of intake from countries such as Sudan.[40]

Initial media reporting of this crime speculated, with absolutely no evidence, that Gony’s death was the result of “gang violence”. The actual culprits were two white racist thugs. The facts however didn’t stop the racist hysteria in the media, which took their cue from Andrews. On 3 October 2007, the day after his statement, all three commercial television networks ran a fabricated story about “Sudanese gangs”. It was introduced by Seven News anchor Peter Mitchell as follows:

If you can, put racism claims aside for a moment…tonight we can show you the terror experienced by a Noble Park shopkeeper at the hands of an ethnic gang. They’ve been identified by police as predominantly Sudanese youths caught on camera stealing and striking fear into those around them.

Nine News followed suit:

New footage has emerged showing Sudanese gangs terrorising shopkeepers in Noble Park. Business owners are demanding more protection from local authorities while the Federal Government has announced it’s shutting the door to African refugees.

As did Ten News:

Ten News believes a man recently entered the Springvale police station vowing to rape and kill a female officer… [this was later denied by police – TLA] the Federal Government is shutting the door on African refugees until July next year because of concerns about their ability to integrate.

Having debunked these totally false stories, Media Watch editorialised:

It’s a classic case of the commercial networks’ long held obsession with so-called ethnic gangs, fitting perfectly with the political interests of those supporting the freeze on African migrants.[41]

Those “political interests” include the fact that a federal election was looming, and the Howard government was in trouble. Playing the race card had worked for Howard before, notably in 2001, which is still widely referred to as the “Tampa election”. This was a similar attempt to stir up racism against the victims of it – while at the same time denying that racism is a problem in Australia. As with Cronulla, there were attempts to paint the Gony murder merely as an issue of “law and order”, with strong overtones that the victims of race hate crimes have brought trouble on themselves because of their “failure to integrate”. During the Gony trial it was reported that one of the assailants had told friends beforehand, “I’m going to kill the blacks”, but according to the judge this was insufficient to establish that the attack was racially motivated. One wonders what would be considered sufficient evidence!

The death of Liep Gony and the barrage of racist stereotyping of young African men that followed it led to an investigation whose findings were published in a Report of the Racism Project in March 2010.[42] This report, based on interviews with 30 young people from African backgrounds living in various Melbourne suburbs, as well as community workers, revealed that there was a “law and order issue” – not with Sudanese “gangs” but with the Victorian police, who systematically target and often verbally or physically abuse young African men. Unsurprisingly, this report received little publicity. But its findings were vindicated a year later when Victoria Police made secret payouts totalling tens of thousands of dollars to five young men – four African-born and one Afghan – who were suing police for physical brutality and racism. The police preferred to pay rather than have the sordid details of beatings, false imprisonment and racial abuse come out in court. Charges police had tried to pin on some of the men had already been summarily dismissed or dropped. Predictably, police blustered that the settlements were not an admission of brutality. But Tamar Hopkins of the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, which represented the men, saw it differently:

Many police are using excessive and unlawful force against ordinary Victorians and in particular minorities. These civil claims represent a tiny fraction of the complaints that are made. Excessive, unnecessary force, and indeed racism, is very much a part of everyday policing.[43]

These examples – and there are many more – demonstrate how deeply embedded racism is in the institutions of our society and how the state, with the willing assistance of the media, actively campaigns to promote racist attitudes, especially when there’s a need for scapegoats. It’s no coincidence that the onset of economic crisis has seen the ramping up of racism around the world, especially in Europe, North America and Australia. If we are ever to eradicate racism from human society, we need first to understand where it comes from.

Racism and capitalism[44]

Racism is neither an age-old phenomenon, nor inherent in human beings’ fear of “the other”. Racism as we know it today developed under capitalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, initially as a justification for the slavery that condemned millions of mainly African people to miserable lives and early deaths as they worked the sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations of the New World. Their labour produced stupendous wealth for the plantation owners and laid the basis for the rapid development of capitalism as the dominant mode of production on a global scale.

Slavery was the only way to develop the colonies of the New World: “With the limited population of Europe in the sixteenth century, the free labourers necessary [did not exist] in the quantities adequate to permit large-scale production. Slavery was necessary for this.”[45] But slavery ran counter to ideas about the “equality of man” used by the rising bourgeoisie in their struggle to displace the feudal ruling class with its ideology of the divine right of monarchs and a rigidly hierarchical society in which everyone had their place and stayed there. The new ideology, summed up in the slogan of the French Revolution, “Liberty, equality, fraternity”, was crucial in rallying the plebeian masses behind the bourgeoisie, purporting to give them an interest in the victory of a new minority exploiting class. The fact that the masses took these new ideas seriously and were prepared to fight for them greatly assisted the triumph of the bourgeoisie. But once the new capitalist order was established, such democratic ideas, and the people who espoused them, became a nuisance. Ideas about “free labour” were potentially a hindrance to the making of enormous profits.

The capitalists needed a way to justify the enslavement and inhuman treatment of millions of people and found it in the creation of a new, pseudo-scientific ideology that for the first time divided human beings into a hierarchy on the basis of physical characteristics. There was supposedly a range of “races” representing different levels of human development, from “advanced” and “civilised” to “primitive” and even “subhuman”. To give just one example: the French naturalist and botanist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) believed there were three distinct races: Caucasian (white), Mongolian (yellow) and Ethiopian (black). He theorised that the original human race (descended from Adam and Eve) was Caucasian, while the other two developed separately from survivors who fled a natural disaster. Rating each “race” on the basis of the “beauty” of their skulls and the quality of their “civilisations”, he concluded that the white race was superior on both counts. Blacks, on the other hand were at the bottom. He wrote:

The Negro race…is marked by black complexion, crisped of woolly hair, compressed cranium and a flat nose. The projection of the lower parts of the face, and the thick lips, evidently approximate it to the monkey tribe: the hordes of which it consists have always remained in the most complete state of barbarism.[46]

Thus, with the help of a layer of the intelligentsia, “A racial twist has…been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.”[47]

As a creature of slavery and empire, racism was central to the development of European and North American capitalism. As Marx put it:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.[48]

Racism’s usefulness to the capitalist class did not end with the eventual demise of the slave trade. On the contrary, the now established ideas about the supposed inferiority of Africans could easily be extended to non-white races in Asia and other parts of the globe as they were subjected to nineteenth century European imperialist expansion in the form of colonialism. The subjugation of indigenous peoples, the disruption of their societies, the theft of their land, the destruction of their culture and the plundering of their resources were carried out by imperialist states and justified by racism. Colonialism was even invested with a sense of nobility of purpose, with notions such as the “white man’s burden” popularised by Rudyard Kipling. In the nineteenth century, pseudo-scientific theories such as social Darwinism and eugenics – products of the middle class intelligentsia – played a significant role in legitimising racism. And as it had done with slavery, institutionalised religion played its part in making racism respectable; missionaries blithely ignored the supposed Christian creed of the “brotherhood of man” as they served the cause of empire.

Although the age of direct colonialism is over, racism continues to serve imperialist interests. It is invariably pressed into service to justify and win popular support for wars. In the 1960s, for example, anti-Asian racism was used to demonise the Vietnamese, while more recently Islamophobia was indispensible for the prosecution of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the context of the War on Terror.

Racism was also useful on the domestic front. In a letter written in 1870, Marx described the division of the working class in England into two hostile camps (English and Irish workers) as “the secret of the impotence of the English working class”, creating a situation in which “the ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life…feels himself as a member of the ruling nation, and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.” Marx noted how this hostility was “artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling class”, so that this antagonism was also “the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it.”[49]

Racism allows white workers an illusory sense of power insofar as they see themselves as part of the dominant group in society, while at the same time providing scapegoats against whom to turn the anger that should properly be directed towards the ruling class.

Today, it is the capacity of racism to divide the working class and divert workers’ discontent away from the capitalists and direct it towards the chosen scapegoats of the day which is most useful to the capitalist class. One of the great advantages of racism, from the ruling class’s point of view, is that it can be adapted to the needs of the capitalist class at any given time. Racism can be directed against any ethnic group, at home or abroad, that the ruling class sees as a problem; and in more recent times we have seen how racism based on physical characteristics can be morphed into and merged with a racism based on “cultural differences”, as with Islamophobia, and used in the same way. In the early days of white settlement, Irish workers and Catholicism were stigmatised and demonised in much the same way as Muslim workers and Islam are today, reflecting the racism that existed in British society. Moreover, a significant number of the Irish convicts transported to Australia were in effect political prisoners, and Irish nationality was associated with anti-British sentiment and general rebelliousness. Anti-Irish racism (and discrimination against Catholics) persisted in Australia right up to the 1970s, but has now virtually disappeared.[50] This adaptability suggests that racist attitudes are neither natural nor an underlying constant: they have to be continually manufactured and reinforced by those at the top of capitalist society and their middle class ideologues.

The capitalists do not rule directly. They rely on governments to enact and enforce laws and policies in their interests. As Marx and Engels put it, “The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”[51] The state is not a neutral, independent body standing above society. It is not just that politicians, judges, the heads of the public service and so on are racists – though of course they often are. As members of the ruling class they are committed to the pursuit of profit, the maintenance of exploitation and the protection of the interests of their “own” capitalists vis-à-vis those of other countries. In a world divided into competing nation states, the state is also the primary means through which notions of national identity are developed and nationalist ideology is promoted. Nationalism serves the capitalists’ interests by obscuring the class divide (and the partisan nature of the state itself) and persuading workers to side with their own rulers in “the national interest”. Racism is therefore a natural and inevitable extension of nationalism. As Michael Grewcock argues:

The association of nationalism with the state ensures that…nationalism is an extraordinarily pervasive and powerful ideology, continually replenishing itself by reference to external and internal threats. This is particularly evident in relation to migration controls, which invariably are legitimised by the state as protecting the national interest. …

Whether expressed in terms of overt racism or cultural difference, nationalism demands loyalty in the name of identity, which is reinforced through state enforced notions of citizenship that disguise class inequality and social difference.… At the institutional level, the state’s capacity to define the external alien through the formalities of passport control and citizenship works alongside its capacity to make particular language, religious, racial or cultural prerequisites the basis of defining the legitimate migrant.[52]

In Australia, he continues, “the traditions of exclusion that were essential to the development of the original nationalist ideal continue to shape contemporary manifestations of nationalism.”[53] This was encapsulated in John Howard’s infamous pronouncement: “We will decide who comes here and the circumstances under which they come.” It is no coincidence that a more aggressive nationalism has accompanied the rise of racism in recent years. On 25 January 2012, The Age reported that a study by Professor Farida Fozdar of the University of Western Australia found that people with Australian flags on their cars have more racist attitudes than those without them. The consequences are events like we saw at Cronulla in 2005 and Manly on Australia Day in 2009, when white racists draped themselves in the Australian flag as they assaulted people of Middle Eastern and Asian appearance respectively.

White Australia

The roots of racism in Australia lie in its origins as a white settler state in Asia. Racism arrived with the First Fleet as part of the baggage of empire. Ideas about the inherent superiority of the “white race”, and the corresponding inferiority of non-white races (and the Irish), were already entrenched and widespread among those who colonised Australia. Racism has always been characteristic of colonial settler states, often assuming even more virulent forms than in the society of the colonising power. A major reason for this is the inconvenient presence of indigenous people.

In Australia, the Indigenous population stood in the way of the development and expansion of the wool industry. The resistance by Indigenous people to the theft of their land was savagely put down at the behest of the pastoralists and with the full co-operation of the state (effectively a military dictatorship in the early years of white settlement). Indigenous people were seen as an inferior race that could not compete with white civilisation and were doomed to extinction. So the widespread massacres, the deliberate introduction of disease and alcohol, the stealing of children and all the other genocidal atrocities inflicted on them were simply a way of helping along a supposedly inevitable historical process.

But racism in Australia served a broader purpose. On the one hand, despite the desire of some capitalists to import cheap labour from Asia and the Pacific region, the ruling class eventually concluded that its interests were best served by maintaining an ethnically homogeneous population. On the other, the Australian state and capitalists from very early on set out to create their own empire in the region, dominating it economically and politically. Racism helped to justify all that this entailed – from protecting the operations of companies like Burns Philp and BHP to invading “failed states” like the Solomon Islands.[54]

“White Australia” – which required legislation to exclude Chinese, Pacific Islanders and others deemed inferior – was the key element in the forging of the Australian nation and the Australian “identity” and proudly proclaimed as such by virtually every colonial politician, including the “founding fathers” of the nation such as Henry Parkes, Alfred Deakin and Edmund Barton. It was the ideology that dominated all the respectable institutions of society, such as the press and the churches. It also dominated somewhat less respectable institutions, such as the trade union movement. However, historical writing in Australia overwhelmingly concentrates on the latter. You would expect a class warrior like Chris Berg, research fellow with the right wing Institute of Public Affairs, to focus on what he calls the “awkward truth” that “the White Australia policy was led by a union movement trying to eliminate competition in the labour market.” Never one to miss an opportunity to have a go at the unions, Berg slams “the union movement’s historical culpability for the White Australia policy”.[55] However, this view persists as the dominant explanation for the genesis of the White Australia policy and the persistence of racist attitudes among the working class and in Australian society more generally.

It is not surprising that this should be so: it is hardly in the interests of those who have ruled Australia for the past 200-odd years to admit that the nation was founded on an utterly racist basis, and that the national identity was – and continues to be – built on racism. The “history wars” of the Howard era showed how important this is to the ruling class; attempts to strip the romantic veil from Australia’s past and reveal the ugly truth beneath were derided as a “black armband” view of history – a term coined by the conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey and enthusiastically adopted by Howard.

There have been some welcome challenges to the hegemonic view. A few socialist historians have engaged in pathbreaking research to show how the ideology of White Australia was central to the agenda of the ruling class, and how they and their ideologues, particularly in the press, deliberately stoked the flames of racism to serve their own class interests. Verity Burgmann pointed to the historical absurdity of the view that the White Australia policy was imposed by the working class. Proceeding from the fact that, as Marx and Engels put it, “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”, she situates working class racism in its context of the “all-pervasive influence of ruling class ideology” and argues that the idea that the White Australia policy resulted from a social consensus about protecting workers’ wages “attributes to the working class a degree of power and influence that is quite unrealistic. It is not logical that the middle class, let alone the capitalist class, would espouse the White Australia ideal out of any concern for working class wage levels.”[56] It is worth noting here that the official adoption of the White Australia policy by the first Australian parliament occurred in the wake of the decisive defeat of important strikes by key sections of the Australian working class – maritime workers and shearers – in the 1890s. Yet by some mysterious means this defeated and demoralised working class was supposedly able to impose its will on a parliament in which it had virtually no representation.

The most thorough debunking of the mythology surrounding the White Australia policy has been carried out by Phil Griffiths. Supported by a wealth of evidence, he argues that it was “the product of the dominant agendas of the Anglo-Australian ruling class”.[57]

The first of these was strategic. Northern Australia was sparsely populated, and the fear was that significant Chinese immigration might lead to the weakening or even loss of Australian control of that part of the continent. Paranoia about invasion by the “yellow hordes” (whether from China or Japan) was a constant feature of late nineteenth century Australian politics and one that has persisted to some extent up to today.

The second involved a dispute between different sectors of the ruling class. Capitalists in the south favoured a modern industrial economy and therefore opposed the development in Queensland and the Northern Territory of a plantation economy based on non-white indentured labour. They had observed that the conflict between a slave-based economy in the south and an industrial economy based on wage labour in the north had led to a destructive civil war in the US, and had no desire to repeat the experience. The dominant view in British and Australian ruling circles was that Australia should remain a white British domain, and those capitalists who favoured the importation of a cheap, non-white labour force were overruled.

The third agenda was the construction of a culturally homogeneous population, and specifically one that identified as British. Large numbers of Chinese “would undermine the effect of existing nationalist and racist ideologies on the white population and necessitate the construction of new nationalist and class collaborationist ideologies”.[58] White Australia provided a convenient ideology for convincing white workers they had common interests with the white ruling class. In this context it is worth noting that: “The great urban working class mobilisations against Chinese immigration all came at times of unemployment and economic distress: 1878 in New South Wales and elsewhere, 1880 in New South Wales, and 1888 in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Bitterness at the workings of capitalism was deflected…onto a racialised target.”[59] It is also significant that in Queensland, where the trade unions were weakest, Chinese immigration was restricted with little or no working class mobilisation.

Griffiths notes that “all the anti-Chinese laws passed in colonial Australia were passed by ruling class parliaments” and that “to be a member of one of the colonial parliaments required a man to be rich or to have wealthy backers”, as MPs (except in Victoria) were unpaid. The mass media “almost unanimously supported restrictive legislation against Chinese immigration”. [60]

Jerome Small’s thesis on the Clunes riot of 1873[61] offers an important new interpretation of what is usually presented as a key incident in pressuring a section of the ruling class in Victoria to support new restrictions on Chinese immigration in 1881. The riot occurred in response to the Clunes Mining Company’s use of Chinese scab labour to break a strike over the imposition of an additional Saturday afternoon shift. Newspapers at the time (like historical accounts ever since) presented it purely as an anti-Chinese crusade. Noting that “while the histories abound with examples of agitation at the bottom of society, helping to push those at the top into action, the relationship the other way – between anti-Chinese outpourings at the top and racist action at the bottom – is rarely explored”, Small challenges the one-sidedness of this interpretation by examining the class dimensions of the dispute and the complex interplay of issues of race and class. He points out for example that the Clunes miners were tipped off about the recruitment of scabs by Chinese miners who had a good relationship with their white neighbours; and that the leading role in the anti-Chinese (as opposed to anti-employer) agitation was played not by workers but by “various middle class men attached to the Miners’ Associations”. The president of the Clunes Miners’ Association, for instance, was William Blanchard – the Mayor of Clunes, owner of a fruit shop and himself a budding mining capitalist.

It is the case that, with some honourable exceptions, most unions and socialist organisations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries supported the White Australia policy, and it is this history of racism in the workers’ movement that provides the material basis for the dominant narrative. However, the acceptance of nationalism, and hence the capitulation to racism by much of the workers’ movement has to be understood as the effect of racist ruling class policies and propaganda, not as the cause.

In a study of the Australian Socialist League (later the Socialist Labor Party), which was the only socialist organisation in continuous existence in the period from 1887 to 1917, Verity Burgmann traces the evolution of its strategy for achieving socialism. She identifies “three distinct phases: co-operationism, 1887-1890; state socialism, 1891-1907; and revolutionary industrial unionism, from 1907 on. Its differentiated handling of working class racism echoed these changes in strategy.”[62] It was only in the last phase, under the influence of the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), that the organisation finally adopted a principled and consistently anti-racist stance, linked to its revolutionary opposition to capitalism.


It is not only “non-whites” who have experienced racism in Australia. In addition to the anti-Irish racism mentioned above, there is a long and dishonourable history of anti-Semitism, particularly in ruling class circles. As Andrew Markus records,

…open expression of anti-Semitism and a degree of discrimination was a feature of Australian life. The Jewish immigrants who arrived in the inter-war period, particularly the larger numbers of the late 1930s, faced open hostility. This was manifested in newspapers, particularly Smith’s Weekly and The Bulletin, and expressed by some members of federal and state parliaments. In the immediate pre- and post-war periods, openly racist comments could still be made and limitations were placed on economic and social interaction with Jews. Discrimination was entrenched in some of the professions, including the law; Jews were denied admittance to the Melbourne Stock Exchange and membership of the Melbourne Club, tennis and golf clubs.[63]

Anti-Semitism in Australia flourished during the 1930s – the period that saw the Nazis come to power in Germany and the rise of home-grown fascist movements in Australia. The best known far-right organisation in Australian history was the New Guard, founded in February 1931. Its leader, Eric Campbell, was a Sydney solicitor who took pride in his descent from Australia’s “elite, pioneering stock”[64] and further cemented his Establishment credentials by marrying into the family of wealthy grazier William Browne, a member of the pastoral elite. In 1933 Campbell went to Europe to make contact with leading fascists in Germany and Italy, as well as Sir Oswald Mosley in Britain. Typical of a fascist organisation, the membership of the New Guard “largely comprised members of the petty bourgeoisie, insurance clerks, motor garage proprietors and small businessmen”.[65] However, European fascism was admired and supported by many among Australia’s ruling class, including conservative politician (and later Liberal Prime Minister) Robert Menzies, New South Wales police commissioner W.J. McKay, Victorian Premier H.S.W. Lawson and government minister Wilfred Kent Hughes, Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop Gilroy, members of the intelligentsia such as A.R. Chisholm, a professor at Sydney University, and a raft of prominent businessmen such as Sir Philip Goldfinch, T.H. Kelly and Mark Foy. And while it might be argued that this support in some cases owed more to fear and hatred of the working class than to anti-Semitism, there was certainly no repudiation or even criticism of anti-Semitism.

Campbell publicly renounced his support for the Nazis in 1938, and although he was monitored during the war years, he was never interned. In this he was much more fortunate than, for example, the Jewish refugees known as “the Dunera Boys” who, having sought refuge from Nazi Germany in Britain, were put on the boat that gave them their name, shipped to Australia and interned as “enemy aliens” in hideous camps in outback New South Wales. And while revelations about the Holocaust made anti-Semitic utterances less acceptable in the post-war period, anti-Semitism continued to inform government policy for some time, as Andrew Markus notes:

Between 1939 and 1953 immigrants were required to declare in writing whether they were “Jewish”; from 1946 a numerical quota limited Jewish passengers on ships and airplanes travelling to Australia and Jews were excluded from participation in the first stage of the Displaced Persons program. In contrast with this exclusion, there was lax screening of non-Jewish DPs, with the result that a number of war criminals gained admission.[66]

Mark Aarons estimates that hundreds of fascists and Nazi collaborators were accepted as immigrants between 1947 and 1951, a number of whom found a congenial political home in the Liberal Party. One example he discusses is Lyenko Urbanchich, dubbed “little Goebbels” by the Yugoslav War Crimes Commission, who became a powerful force in the New South Wales Liberal Party.[67] Liberal MPs have also been scrutinised and criticised for their links with the anti-Semitic League of Rights. Openly expressed anti-Semitism among the ruling elite has been largely muted by their staunch support for Israel, along with a deliberate campaign to smear supporters of Palestine by conflating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. But it still surfaces occasionally; as recently as 1993, National Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer deprecated the alleged power of the “Jewish lobby” in Australia.[68]

Multiculturalism: a new hegemony?

The government-sponsored mass migration program of the post-war period began to transform the fairly monolithic British and Irish composition of the Australian working class. This shift in migration policy, initially focused on white European workers, was argued for by the Labor government in terms of the “national interest” – i.e. the need for a much larger workforce to develop the Australian economy. Employers were quite explicit about their reasons for supporting this program.

[They] saw it as the logical solution to labour shortages, high levels of employee turnover and the growing resort to direct action by unions seeking…improvements in working conditions.… The link between labour shortages, high turnover and the level of industrial disturbances was made explicit by companies such as BHP in their submissions to the government for additional immigrants.[69]

A concerted campaign by the Labor government won acceptance from the trade union leaders, whose opposition to the program built on their traditional hostility to both government- and privately-assisted immigration, including of European workers. The government sought to assuage fears that an influx of non-British labour would undermine wages and conditions. In April 1948, for example, immigration minister Arthur Calwell (whose infamous quip “Two Wongs don’t make a White” gives a clue to his own attitudes) “assured the Melbourne Trades Hall Council that ‘Balts’ [as displaced persons and refugees from Eastern Europe were called] would be paid award rates and would not be used as strike-breakers”.[70]

These new migrant workers were mostly treated as factory fodder, and tended to be concentrated in industries and occupations with poor working conditions, doing the most unskilled, dirty and low-paid jobs. They experienced terrible racism and discrimination in all areas of life, and resentment towards them was “aggravated by press, government and employer spokespersons who ascribed a strong work motivation to refugees and drew unfavourable comparisons with Australian-born workers”.[71]

By the middle of the twentieth century, the White Australia policy was becoming a liability for the Australian ruling class. Australia’s Asian neighbours naturally found it offensive and it was an impediment to good relations between the Australian state and business community and their counterparts in countries like Singapore and Japan that were increasingly important for the Australian economy. By the mid-1960s Japan was Australia’s major trading partner. It was not until 1965 that the Labor Party finally dropped White Australia from its platform. However, the ALP leader at the time, Arthur Calwell, remained thoroughly committed to the White Australia policy. As he later wrote:

For political and diplomatic reasons, the 1965 Federal ALP Conference removed the words “White Australia” from the ALP platform. We certainly did not try to water down the policy nor take the ideal of a White Australia from the hearts and minds of the Australian people.[72]

Nonetheless, it became increasingly clear that the White Australia policy was bad for business, and this is why it was abandoned, with bipartisan support, under the Whitlam Labor government in 1973. With immigration restrictions based purely on race largely removed, the working class over time became more and more ethnically diverse.

Many employers were quick to exploit and inflame racial tensions, whether between native Australian workers and migrants, or between different migrant groups. An example of the former was BHP, which was particularly keen to expand its workforce with migrant workers. When the Newcastle branch of the Federated Ironworkers’ Union (FIA) considered a proposal to introduce displaced persons into the steel industry in May 1949, it was reported that “BHP superintendents were harassing workers with threats such as ‘wait till the Balts come here, we will fix you’.”[73] (An interesting sidenote: in 1945 FIA National Secretary Ernie Thornton had criticised the White Australia policy, saying that no working class organisation could tolerate discrimination based on colour or religion. This “made him a target for considerable abuse, including a racist cartoon in the conservative Sydney Morning Herald.”[74])

The Ford company actively fostered divisions among its multi-ethnic workforce. Foremen and supervisors were invariably white and usually Anglo, helping to set up an “us and them” relationship. Ford’s practice of systematically putting Greeks and Turks to work side by side was justified by a company spokesman in benevolent terms, as a means to “get them used to a multicultural society and help them to learn English”. But this was pure spin. “Clearly, in the short term such a policy inhibited communication and the growth of solidarity and cohesive work groups, and was intended to do so.”[75]

In 1973 a militant strike by mainly migrant workers at Ford’s car assembly plant in Broadmeadows (Melbourne) – which included a riot,[76] smashed windows, damaged buildings and confrontations with police – acted as a “wake-up call” for both employers and the trade union leaders, as it “testified to a degree of hostility and resentment that no one had previously suspected”.[77] As Lever-Tracy and Quinlan note, “immigrant industrial behaviour has a paradoxical character, where long-term inhibition has given way to spontaneous outbursts of militancy…immigrants have shown a capacity to engage in industrial action that defied the recommendations of union leaders.”[78] Moreover, some migrant workers brought their own experiences and traditions of militancy and left wing political organisation with them. In 1973 rank and file migrant workers at the AMI car plant in Melbourne successfully took action against speed-up of the line. Recalling the dispute, Noel Tracy (later a Vehicle Builders Union shop steward) said:

The Spaniards who led the action had been members of the illegal workers’ commissions which had organised mass strikes under the Franco regime. The Mauritians were solid too, they talked of the general strike in Mauritius that had been put down violently by the British marines. Their idea was that we needed a general strike in Melbourne too.[79]

Employers were happy to foster and use racial tensions to facilitate their “divide and rule” tactics. But events like the Ford strike and the AMI dispute showed that disaffected migrant workers who felt largely excluded from the society they lived in could be a volatile and explosive force. Even more alarmingly, their militancy could “infect” Australian-born workers. The experience of working alongside migrant workers began to undermine racist attitudes; and fears that migrants would undermine wages and conditions were dispelled by the fact that migrants not only joined unions, but were often the most militant fighters. This plus the rise in the level of industrial struggle in the late 1960s and early 1970s laid the basis for challenging racist ideas.

Ruling class concern about the growing militancy of migrant workers and their capacity to draw Australian-born workers behind them prompted government and employers to fashion a new kind of Australian nationalism.

The 1978 Galbally Inquiry into Migrant Services and Programs signalled an important shift. Its report “urged the adoption of cultural diversity as a means of developing the sense of nationalist loyalty amongst migrants” and contributed to the “development of a multiculturalism that was conceptualised primarily as [a] mechanism for consolidating national unity”.[80]

Multiculturalism, introduced under the Fraser Coalition government and supported by Labor, was primarily an attempt to rebadge Australian nationalism as more “inclusive” and thus avoid social fracture. Importantly, it involved co-opting a layer of middle class migrants who could play a role in disciplining militant workers within their own communities and diverting their anger and discontent into safe channels. Because multiculturalism was developed within a nationalist framework, its capacity to challenge racism was limited, although it did create a certain space for anti-racist arguments. As we have seen, however, multiculturalism has not prevented the racist targeting of particular groups.

Workers and racism

If racism is demonstrably not in workers’ interests, why is it that workers take up racist ideas? In addressing this question, the starting point is provided by Marx and Engels, who wrote:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.[81]

Marx also argued that the dominant ideas in any given society at any given time were neither eternal nor natural, but rooted in the material conditions of society. They reflect the social relations of that society, and, by implication, the needs of its ruling class:

The same men who establish their social relations in conformity with their material productivity, produce also principles, ideas and categories, in conformity with their social relations. Thus these ideas, these categories are as little eternal as the relations they express. They are historical and transitory products.[82]

Such ideas then, are not truth, but ideology. Ideology props up class society by misleading the exploited about the nature of the society they live in and their position in it, so that social relations appear natural. The ruling class uses its control of the means of production and of the state to create and sustain institutions (such as the education system and the mass media) through which people’s beliefs are formed.

Marx also argued that workers’ inability to control things which shape and determine their lives (whether they have a job, what hours they work, how much they are paid, what they produce and so on) engenders a feeling of powerlessness, which he called alienation. This sense of powerlessness means that workers are more likely to defer to authority figures and are prone to accept ideas propagated by them. Alongside this is the phenomenon he described in Capital as “commodity fetishism”, which makes it more difficult to see how the system works. Because of the way the market dominates our lives, social relationships between people appear as objectified relationships between things (commodities and money). This obscures the fact that society and its institutions, including the market, are themselves the products of human activity, just like the physical commodities workers produce. These phenomena, described by Georg Lukács as reification,[83] explain why workers accept ideas which serve the interests of their class enemies.[84]

Ideas do not exist in a vacuum: they take root because they flow from actual material and social conditions. Indigenous people don’t suffer just because people act in racist ways, or because the media routinely peddle racist lies. The fact that Indigenous people are actively denied their human rights sends a signal that they’re not of equal worth. The denial of their rights is part of the structural oppression that leads to poverty and alienation. Given the appalling conditions in which so many are forced to live, it is hardly surprising that some turn to alcohol or drugs to dull the pain, and this serves to reinforce racist stereotypes and legitimise the racist denigration of all Indigenous people. It’s a vicious circle: racist ideas connect with the material reality that Indigenous people and other oppressed groups suffer discrimination and inequality, which allows them to be portrayed in a negative light as undeserving of sympathy and better treatment.

Capitalism is based on competition. The competition between capitalists in pursuit of profits flows through to important aspects of workers’ lives; the fact that we are forced to compete for jobs, university places and so on helps to make competition seem natural. When this is combined with nationalism, which encourages workers to identify with their own ruling class rather than workers in other countries, it’s not such a big step to accept the idea that workers in one country have to compete against workers from another – and the mantra of national competitiveness is constantly invoked by businesspeople and “experts” like economists to argue that workers should accept lower wages and worse conditions.

All of these things combine to make workers susceptible to racist ideas and limit the development of class consciousness. The level of struggle is critical. The acceptance by workers of ruling class ideology – not just racism, but ideas like we need bosses to run society, that parliament is the only way to change anything, that women’s rights are a threat and so on – is most entrenched when class struggle is at a low ebb, when workers are on the defensive, or have suffered defeats and seen their conditions eroded year after year, as they have under the neoliberal agenda. On the other hand, when workers are standing up to their employers and governments and fighting for better pay and conditions, they experience the ability to get some control over their lives. And so the material, social basis for accepting the ruling ideas is modified. If you can make a difference to your everyday experience, it can give you more confidence to question other aspects of your life. Then workers can be far more open to the left’s challenges to all aspects of capitalist ideology.

The role of the media and middle class intellectuals

On a day to day basis, the mass media play an important role in shaping “public opinion”. It is not the case, as many middle class liberals argue, that workers are simply brainwashed by the media and uncritically accept all the right wing ideas presented there – if that were so, workers who read the Herald Sun or the Daily Telegraph or watch A Current Affair would never go on strike and their opinions would never find expression in polls and surveys. However, by making decisions about what issues to run with and how they are prioritised and presented, the media are in a position to set the tone for the discussion of social and economic issues. Phil Griffiths and Jerome Small (cited earlier) have provided numerous examples of how newspapers fanned the flames of anti-Chinese racism in the late nineteenth century. Today’s considerably expanded mass media do not generally use the same kind of overt racial stereotyping and language in their articles and editorials that decades of anti-racist campaigning has made unacceptable, but they are often happy to give airtime and column space – and thus lend credibility – to those who do.

The mass media are neither independent nor impartial. They are capitalist enterprises whose proprietors are motivated by the same concerns as the rest of the ruling class: the drive to make profits and the maintenance of the status quo in terms of the social order. R.W. Connell argues:

The media…work in such a way as to create the ideological conditions for the success of conservative politics. … [T]his is not a matter of “bias” or partisan reporting or conscious distortion of the truth; no evil-minded capitalist plotters need be assumed. It is an outcome of the normal, regular processes by which commercial mass communications work in a capitalist system, producing and reproducing an ideological interpretation of the world.[85]

This is largely true in a general sense: there is clearly a shared world view and a convergence of interests between the media and other sections of capital which makes it inevitable that the media will argue the ruling class position, even without direct intervention. But “partisan reporting” and “conscious distortion of the truth” are not ruled out. This is because the “normal, regular processes” of capitalism mean that there are mutually beneficial relationships between the media and other sections of big business, and that capitalists, when they feel it is necessary, deliberately seek to influence media content. Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart – a major player in the ruling class campaign to prevent the introduction of the mining tax – has recently begun investing in the media, acquiring stakes in the Ten television network and the Fairfax press. Buying into Ten got her a seat on the board; shortly afterwards the right wing columnist Andrew Bolt got his own TV program. That this is not simply coincidence is confirmed by the prominent businessman John Singleton, a friend of Rinehart’s:

We have been able to covertly and overtly attack governments… Because we have people employed by us like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones and Ray Hadley who agree with [Rinehart’s] thinking about the development of our resources, we act in concert that way.[86]

The liberal press, while often editorialising against racism, regularly gives prominent space on its op-ed pages to right wing ideologues such as Ron Brunton and Chris Berg in the name of “balance”. The ABC too, paranoid about right wing criticism of its supposed “left wing bias” (if only!), provides racist arguments with a platform on programs such as Q&A. Melvin Leiman’s description of the main facets of liberalism – “sympathy tempered by pragmatic considerations, awareness of social forces threatening the viability of the system, a search for minimal solutions needed to pacify dissident groups and a not-so-subtle elitism that would lessen the grosser injustice of race in order to maintain the finer injustice of class distinctions”[87] – reads like a mission statement for the likes of The Age and the ABC.

The capitalist class has never had any difficulty finding tame intellectuals, scientists and academics, social commentators and so on to prosecute racist arguments. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Cuvier, scientific racists such as Hans Eysenck of London University and US psychologist Arthur Jensen built their careers on reactionary theories about race, class and IQ, basing much of their argument on the fraudulent (and subsequently discredited) IQ testing conducted by Cyril Burt, who argued that intelligence was hereditary. In response to widespread criticism and campaigning by anti-racists in the 1970s, fifty academics, including five Nobel laureates, signed a statement defending these charlatans in the name of “scientific freedom”. More recently, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray used similar theories in their best-selling book The Bell Curve (published in 1994), to argue that Blacks and Hispanics in the US are poorer and more likely to be unemployed or in prison, not because the US is a racist society, but as a result of innate biological differences: IQ tests supposedly “prove” they are inherently inferior in intelligence to whites. This was no mere intellectual exercise; it was used to support a political agenda:

The Bell Curve sets out to assure the well-off that they deserve their wealth and correspondingly that the poor – especially Blacks and Hispanics – are incapable of achieving much anyway. There is little point “wasting” tax-payers’ money on their education or on social services to improve their lot.[88]

Academic racists in Australia in the recent period include the historian Geoffrey Blainey and demographer Robert Birrell, both mentioned above. Birrell, the recently retired director of the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University in Melbourne, has a long record of using his research, on whatever issue, to call for cutting back on immigration. Reviewing his career, journalist Geoff Maslen noted that the journal People and Place, launched by Birrell in 1993, “has been highly influential and widely read, notably by the nation’s most powerful politicians and bureaucrats” despite its tiny circulation, and that many of its findings “have created headlines and powerfully influenced government policy”.[89]

In the first issue, Birrell published research arguing that non-white migrant groups continued to be in need of government welfare assistance for longer than groups such as Britons and white South Africans, providing fodder for newspaper columnists and radio shock-jocks to argue against allowing in more non-white migrants. In July 2011 Birrell released a report claiming that Australia could afford to cut its net immigration rate by half and still service the mining boom, and should do so to ease the strain on the country’s big cities and resources.[90] In September the same year, Monash University’s website announced that Birrell had identified a new health crisis – Australia has too many doctors! This might come as a surprise to anyone who has waited for hours or even days for treatment in a hospital emergency department, or for months or years for elective surgery, or for weeks just to get an appointment with their GP, but apparently it is so. And the reason? All those foreign doctors. “Given the large numbers of IMGs [international medical graduates] already in Australia, it is vital the authorities do not allow the numbers to increase through additional migration.”[91]

Like the media, academics like Blainey and Birrell play a useful role for the ruling class by legitimising racism, and in general can be left alone to get on with it. On occasion, however, big business will intervene directly to protect their class interests – as we saw with the campaign against land rights run by employer and industry organisations in the 1990s. Sometimes those class interests allow business to profess a phoney commitment to multiculturalism and values like “tolerance”. But when business organisations spoke out against Pauline Hanson, or Blainey’s campaign against Asian immigration, their only concern was the potential threat to their business interests (and profits). There has certainly been no mobilisation by business organisations against racist policies from which they benefit, such as those targeting refugees and Indigenous people.[92]

Fighting racism

“Education” is most commonly put forward as the way to counter racism. Commenting on the Scanlon Foundation survey and the Essential Media poll cited earlier, Andrew Markus and Peter Lewis respectively draw attention to the high level of ignorance about things like the number of Muslims in Australia, the number of asylum seekers who come by boat and so on, and argue that greater knowledge of the facts would help to reduce racism. And this is true up to a point, as the Essential poll in particular demonstrates. Similarly, the SBS television program Go Back to Where You Came From showed that racist attitudes can be challenged – and changed – when refugees are humanised and people gain a genuine insight into their plight.

If people were bombarded day in and day out with Julia Gillard giving the facts, crying over the stories of torture, rape, and degradation refugees tell, arguing that human rights are the issue, not borders, the whole narrative surrounding the issue could be transformed.[93]

But eradicating racism requires much more than education. In any case, the question is, who is to provide this education? After all, some of the most prominent purveyors of racism are highly educated. Tony Abbott for instance attended an elite private boarding school, the University of Sydney and Oxford; Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, Geoffrey Blainey and the rest – all tertiary-educated. Pauline Hanson was not, but then in the end she wasn’t as successful either. As David Marr comments comparing Howard and Hanson: “When it came to playing the panic game, one was a professional and the other an amateur.”[94] The fact that the politicians, capitalists and bureaucrats who run the world are well educated does not stop them using racism as a conscious and deliberate strategy. They have done so since the dawn of capitalism – not because of the racist ideas in their heads, but to advance and protect their class interests.

Moreover, the education system is part of the broader culture and reflects its values. The way Australian history is taught in our schools and universities is heavily influenced by a dominant narrative that focuses on plucky and resourceful pioneers who tamed a wild continent and created a wealthy and supposedly egalitarian society, and thus plays a role in inculcating a sense of “national pride”. In recent years there has been an increasing emphasis on Australia’s military exploits. The growing hype around Anzac Day and the glorification of war is not coincidental: it serves to legitimise Australia’s support for imperialist wars. The discourse around Gallipoli, in schools and in the media, is all about the “birth of a nation”; the unjustifiable invasion of another country rarely gets a mention. The air of sacredness attached to Anzac Day is extended to encompass more recent military adventures in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The working class has a material interest in eliminating racism, and the higher the level of class consciousness among workers, the more likely they are to see racism for what it is and reject it. Numerous historical examples attest to the fact that workers can be won away from racism – not through education programs, but from their own experience. Challenges to racism are most likely to occur in the context of struggle, as workers are forced to fight to defend their wages and conditions, to stop unsafe work practices and employer abuse and so on. In these situations, it is obvious that workers need to be united to beat the boss, and unity cannot be built if workers are split along lines of race, gender and all the other divisions set up and fostered by capitalist society. The overwhelming racism towards southern European immigrants at the time did not prevent workers finding common cause against employers in the 1970s. But such changes in consciousness do not happen automatically and inevitably. Much depends on the kinds of arguments made to workers by the leaders and social institutions they look to. This is why it is so important that trade unions take a stand against racism. Significantly, the most serious campaigns against racism seen in Australia were during the 1960s and 1970s, a period of rising industrial militancy and radicalism. But although the racism that infected the Australian union movement in its early days has abated considerably, trade union leaders can all too easily be drawn into supporting the “national interest”, and this in turn can lead to accepting aspects of racism.

But fighting racism is not simply a matter of debunking the nationalist myths and combating racist ideas. It has to be about attempting to change the reality of oppression and inequality that both underpins and reinforces the ideas. Even if the mass of workers rejected the racist stereotypes about Indigenous people, for example, this would not end the oppression. The profits to be made from mining and pastoral activities would ensure that governments and big business would continue to try to drive Indigenous people off their land, and that is the real source of the racism. Only mass struggle can challenge and potentially change this reality. That’s why supporting every struggle by workers to assert their rights, thereby rebuilding a fighting trade union movement, could do more to end discrimination and inequality than any amount of moralising about racism.

Racism is not just a question of ideas and attitudes, it is a material reality rooted in the needs of capitalism. It is deeply embedded in capitalist society and all its institutions, and far too useful a weapon for the ruling class to relinquish without a serious fight that becomes a threat to their ability to rule. As Melvin Leiman argues:

As a theoretical construct, capitalism is conceivable without racism. But racism is historically rooted in the combined slave-capitalist system, and its persistence suggests that overcoming racism would require transcending capitalist society.[95]

[1] “Government lets fear reign on asylum seekers”, The Age, 13 September 2011.

[2] David Marr, Panic, Black Inc., Collingwood (Victoria), 2011, p.44.

[3] Michael Grewcock, Border Crimes. Australia’s war on illicit migrants, Institute of Criminology Press (Sydney Institute of Criminology Series 29), Sydney, 2009, p.109.

[4] Diane Fieldes, “Mabo – End of Terra Nullius?”, The Hummer, Vol. 2, No. 4, Winter 1995, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, http://asslh.org.au/hummer/vol-2-no-4/mabo-end/.

[5] Robert Manne (ed), Two Nations. The Causes and Effects of the Rise of the One Nation Party in Australia, Bookman Press, Melbourne, 1998, p.4.

[6] Phillip Adams, “Pauline and Prejudice – It’s in the Bag”, in Manne (ed), Two Nations, p.23.

[7] The Age, 24 June 1998.

[8] Murray Goot, “Hanson’s Heartland. Who’s for One Nation and Why”, in Manne (ed), Two Nations, p.55.

[9] Goot, “Hanson’s Heartland”, p.57, p.62.

[10] Goot, “Hanson’s Heartland”, p.72.

[11] Mick Armstrong, “Who really voted for One Nation?”, Socialist Alternative No. 28, July 1998.

[12] Rick Kuhn, “Xenophobic racism and class during the Howard years”, Marxist Interventions 1, 2009, http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/mi/1/mi1kuhn.pdf, pp.57-58.

[13] “WA pastoralists back Government abuse plan for NT”, ABC News, 27 June 2007, http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2007/06/27/1963483.htm.

[15] Diane Fieldes, “The NT Intervention: the liberal defence of racism”, Marxist Left Review No. 1, August 2010.

[17] For a useful summary, see Kuhn, “Xenophobic racism”.

[18] David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, Dark Victory, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest (NSW), 2003.

[19] SBS-Ipsos Immigration Nation Research, “Immigration Nation Thought Leadership Research Report”, December 2010, p.98, http://media.sbs.com.au/home/ upload_media/site_20_rand_2115667245_sbs_immigration_nation_final_report_16_dec.pdf.

[20] Hausseger has written numerous articles on this subject. See for example “The burqa is a war on women”, The Age, 21 May 2010.

[21] The “Malaysia solution” was a proposal that involved deporting 800 boat arrivals to Malaysia where, as “illegal undocumented workers”, they would have no rights and face terrible abuse. For details, see http://refugeeactioncoalitionsydney.files. wordpress.com/2011/05/malaysian-solution-fact-sheet-update.pdf.

[22] Andrew Markus, “Mapping Social Cohesion”, The Scanlon Foundation Surveys, Summary Report 2011, p.34. http://arts.monash.edu.au/mapping-population/–documents/mapping-social-cohesion-summary-report-2011.pdf.

[23] Markus, “Mapping Social Cohesion”, p. 38.

[24] Markus, “Mapping Social Cohesion”, p.19.

[25] Markus, “Mapping Social Cohesion”, p.33, p.36.

[26] Peter Lewis, “The polling that drives dog whistle politics…and may cure them”, 1 March 2011, http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/44546.html.

[27] Dylan Welch, “Jones rapped for pre-riot ‘scum’ remarks”, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 2007.

[28] Marilyn Lake, “White Australia rules”, The Age, 15 December 2005.

[29] Adam Morton and Jamie Berry, “Riots? What riots? Still relaxed and comfortable”, The Age, 17 December 2005.

[30] “Police on alert after Sydney race riot”, ABC News Online, 12 December 2005.

[31] Nahid Kabir, “The Cronulla riot: how one newspaper represented the event”, in B. Curtis, S. Mathewman and T. McIntosh (eds), Public Sociologies: Lessons and Trans-Tasman Comparisons, TASA/SAANZ Conference, Department of Sociology, The University of Auckland, 4-7 December 2007, http://www.tasa.org.au/ conferences/conferencepapers07/papers/268.pdf.

[32] The Australian, 13 December 2005, cited in Kabir, “The Cronulla riot”.

[33] The Australian, 14 December 2005, cited in Kabir, “The Cronulla riot”.

[34] ABC TV, “Compass: Cronulla to Kokoda”, 8 July 2007, http://www.abc.net.au/compass/s1973902.htm.

[35] The Age, 7 February 2010.

[36] “Evans off to India to calm ‘hysteria’”, The Australian, 19 July 2009.

[37] Tim Colebatch, “Indian TV’s unsound fury”, The Age, 7 January 2010.

[38] Gautam Gupta, “Turning a blind eye”, http://www.fisa.org.au/content/turning-blind-eye.

[39] Herald-Sun, 9 October 2010.

[40] “Minister cuts African refugee intake”, The Age, 2 October 2007.

[41] Media Watch, ABC TV, 8 October 2007, http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s2054150.htm. Quotes from news reports on Channels Seven, Nine and Ten also taken from this source.

[42] Bec Smith and Shane Reside, “‘Boys, you wanna give me some action?’ Interventions into Policing of Racialised Communities in Melbourne”, A Report of the 2009/10 Racism Project, http://www.fitzroy-legal.org.au/cb_pages/files/ LegalAid_RacialAdol_FA2.pdf.

[43] The Age, 4 May 2012.

[44] For detailed treatment of the link between capitalism and the rise of racism, see Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, The University of North Carolina Press, 1994; and Melvin M. Leiman, The Political Economy of Racism, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2010.

[45] Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, p.6.

[46] Georges Cuvier, The Animal Kingdom: Arranged in Conformity with its Organization, translated from the French by H. M Murtrie, p 50. Cited at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_racism.

[47] Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, p.7.

[48] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, International Publishers, New York, 1967, p.751.

[49] Karl Marx, Letter to Meyer and Vogt, 1870, cited in Leiman, The Political Economy of Racism, p.146.

[50] Phil Griffiths, “Racism: whitewashing the class divide”, in Rick Kuhn (ed), Class and Struggle in Australia, Pearson Education Australia, Sydney, 2005, p.166.

[51] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1968, p.37.

[52] Grewcock, Border Crimes, p.76.

[53] Grewcock, Border Crimes, p.78.

[54] See Tom O’Lincoln, “The neighbour from hell: Australian imperialism”, in Kuhn (ed), Class and Struggle in Australia.

[55] Chris Berg, “Memo to unions: White Australia was a bad idea”, The Sunday Age, 6 November 2011.

[56] Verity Burgmann, “Capital and Labour: Responses to Immigration in the Nineteenth Century”, in Ann Curthoys and Andrew Markus (eds), Who are our enemies? Racism and the working class in Australia, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1978, pp.22, 33.

[57] Phil Griffiths, “The making of White Australia: Ruling class agendas, 1876-1888”, PhD thesis, Australian National University, December 2006, https://digitalcollections.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/47107, p.41. See also Griffiths, “Racism: whitewashing the class divide” in Kuhn (ed), Class and Struggle in Australia.

[58] Griffiths, “The making of White Australia”, p.44.

[59] Tom O’Lincoln, United We Stand. Class Struggle in Colonial Australia, Red Rag Publications, Carlton, 2005, p.97.

[60] Griffiths, “The making of White Australia”, pp.27-8.

[61] Jerome Small, “Reconsidering White Australia. Class and Racism in the 1873 Clunes Riot”, B.A. Honours thesis, La Trobe University, 1997, http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/interventions/.

[62] Verity Burgmann, “Racism, Socialism, and the Labour Movement, 1887-1917”, Labour History No. 47, 1984, p.42.

[63] Andrew Markus, “Anti-Semitism and Australian Jewry”, in Geoffrey Brahm Levey and Philip Mendes (eds), Jews And Australian Politics, Sussex Academic Press, Brighton, 2004, p.112.

[64] Andrew Moore, The Right Road? A History of Right-wing Politics in Australia, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 1995, p.8.

[65] Moore, The Right Road?, p.46.

[66] Markus, “Anti-Semitism and Australian Jewry”, p.112.

[67] Mark Aarons, Sanctuary, William Heinemann, Melbourne, 1989, ch. 1.

[68] Moore, The Right Road?, p.140.

[69] Constance Lever-Tracy and Michael Quinlan, A Divided Working Class. Ethnic Segregation and Industrial Conflict in Australia, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1988, pp.46-7.

[70] Lever-Tracy and Quinlan, A Divided Working Class, p.134.

[71] Lever-Tracy and Quinlan, A Divided Working Class, p.134.

[72] A.A. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not, Lloyd O’Neil, Hawthorn, Victoria, 1972, p.120.

[73] Lever-Tracy and Quinlan, A Divided Working Class, p.172.

[74] Lever-Tracy and Quinlan, A Divided Working Class, p. 172.

[75] Lever-Tracy and Quinlan, A Divided Working Class, pp.292-3.

[76] See Mick Armstrong, “Disturbing the peace: riots and the working class” in this issue of Marxist Left Review.

[77] Jean Martin, “Forms of Recognition: Migrants and Unions 1945-70”, in Curthoys and Markus, Who are our enemies?, p.193. Martin points to strikes in 1964 at GMH and in 1964-5 at Mt Isa, both of which involved workers taking action in defiance of moderate union officials, as early examples of migrant worker militancy. See also Robert Tierney, “Migrants and class in postwar Australia”, in Rick Kuhn and Tom O’Lincoln (eds), Class and class conflict in Australia, Longman Australia, Melbourne 1996.

[78] Lever-Tracy and Quinlan, A Divided Working Class, pp.165-6.

[79] Lever-Tracy and Quinlan, A Divided Working Class, p.249.

[80] Grewcock, Border Crimes, p.107.

[81] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, International Publishers, New York, 2010, p.65.

[82] Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/ works/subject/hist-mat/pov-phil/ch02.htm.

[83] Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”, in History and Class Consciousness, Merlin Press, London, 1971.

[84] See Tom Bramble, “The social roots of reformism” in this issue of Marxist Left Review for a fuller treatment of these phenomena.

[85] R.W. Connell, Ruling Class, Ruling Culture. Studies of conflict, power and hegemony in Australian life, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977, p.195.

[86] Jane Cadzow, “The Iron Lady”, in Good Weekend magazine, Fairfax Media Publications, 21 January 2012, p.13.

[87] Leiman, The Political Economy of Racism, pp.228-9.

[88] John Minns, “The racists who can spell ‘xenophobic’”, Socialist Alternative No. 13, December 1996.

[89] The Age, 8 February 2011.

[90] “Call to halve net overseas migration”, AM, ABC Radio, 18 July 2011, http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2011/s3271420.htm.

[92] See Kuhn, “Xenophobic racism”, p.73.

[93] Sandra Bloodworth, “Experiencing life as a refugee”, Socialist Alternative, No. 169, July 2011.

[94] Marr, Panic, p.5.

[95] Leiman, The Political Economy of Racism, p.5.

Islamophobia, secularism and the left

The rise of Islamophobia in the West needs a clear and principled response from the left. Mick Armstrong takes a critical look at the traditions of "secularism" and the failure of even some in the socialist left to oppose anti-Muslim racism.

The political economy of immigration to Australia

Jordan Humphreys explores the nature of immigration to Australia. By highlighting its importance to ruling class strategies for economic growth he explains how and why the numbers and origins of immigrants have changed over time.

Between syndicalism and reformism: Founding the Communist Party of Australia

Mick Armstrong surveys the many debates that emerged during the founding of the CPA, drawing out lessons for contemporary revolutionaries.