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Australia: The feared other: Australia’s pathology around race

Tuesday 9 January 2018, by siawi3

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/07/the-feared-other-peter-duttons-and-australias-pathology-around-race

The feared other: Peter Dutton’s and Australia’s pathology around race

Joumanah El Matrah

Dutton wants to persuade us that those who are most disempowered in our society are our greatest threat. It widens the divide between us and them

Photo: Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, August 16, 2017. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Sun 7 Jan ‘18 17.00 GMT
Last modified on Sun 7 Jan ‘18 23.30 GMT

In David Marr’s book Panic he came to the realisation that he had been writing about panic, Australian panic in particular, all his career. If we are a fearful nation, we are also a compulsive one. We aggressively return to our fears, stoke our hatreds, and obsessively and routinely project everything that is disturbing within us onto others.
Peter Dutton says Victorians scared to go out because of ’African gang violence’

As a nation, we return again and again to the feared other. First it was the Italian mafias, then the unemployed youth gangs (AKA white boys) terrorising our suburbs, then the focus turned to Vietnamese gangs, moving then to Lebanese and Middle Eastern gangs, and most recently the Sudanese gangs. All the while, we are perpetually the victim of a perpetrator whose identity only shifts in class and race. It is a partnership we seem unable to do without.

From a psychological perspective, compulsions evolve in part from a failure to resolve a deeply rooted pathology. In this case it would be about our collective national delusion and the consequent obsession with gangs, specifically those with a racialised and class profile, were it not also about power and persecuting an already disenfranchised community.

Home affairs minister Peter Dutton understands the truth of our collective pathology around race. He is both mired in it and a master of stoking it. He knows we will respond every time and we will do this, no matter if the acting Victorian chief commissioner of police, Shane Patton, informs us otherwise (that there are no Sudanese gangs as such), or no matter if Victoria’s crime and youth rate are declining, or if the statistics only show an over-representation of Sudanese young men if they are organised in a particular way.

No matter if in centuries of analysing crime we know that race is neither correlative nor causative. In fact, the only factors that reliably correlate with crime among youth is poverty and alienation from society and its institutions. But even then, these factors cannot be said to cause youth crime; to be poor and disenfranchised does not mean you will break the law.

Dutton appears to be a minister committed to exploiting every social and economic fracture he can find: race, class and, of course, he recently attempted – and failed – to fracture us on issues of sexuality. As the head of the home affairs department, responsible for our immigration rules and regulations, for the Australian federal police and Asio, he either does not understand crime or he is wilfully racialising a social problem that has no racial antecedents.

Dutton is part of a government committed to displacing an increasingly progressive consensus on matters of race, class and sexuality. From the beginning of their tenure under Tony Abbott we have been told repeatedly that Australian traditional values pivot on stringent heterosexuality, and legitimate racial and class inequalities.

Why else have we wasted a year of our national life absorbed in bizarre conversations around the entire institution of marriage, culminating in asking the Australian public whether same-sex marriage should be permissible? Why else would our government argue it has the right to test a person’s urine because they’re on social benefits? How else do we accept that a person has no right to citizenship because she or he does not speak English? How else do we arrive at a point where a government feels it can argue that crime and race correlate?

Dutton’s elevation to the home affairs ministry was always to read crime through the lens of ideology; this is the only context in which linking crime to race makes sense. Increasingly it appears that this government wants us to conceive of ourselves as a nation under siege from foreigners, and right now from foreigners that come from one of the most discriminated communities in Australia. Dutton seems compelled to persuade us that those who are most disempowered in our society are our greatest threat.

Ideology is perhaps also why Dutton chose to portray Victoria as a state of residents too frightened to leave home. This is a state that is both Australia’s progressive heartland and the nation’s best attempt at a highly diverse society. Dutton’s implication is that this is the cost of progressive politics and the cost of any sort of pride in our cultural diversity. But this is not a state of scared people, and how most Victorians would respond to Dutton’s comments was best captured by Victoria’s minister for youth affairs Jenny Mikakos’s description of them as “bullshit”.

The damage of wholesale vilification of a community, especially its young people who already face considerable challenges, is sometimes irreparable. It is not only the damage that is wrought from labelling a community as one prone to violence, it is also the damage that is wrought by communities having to defend themselves against accusations of violence as if they are personally responsible.

To force Sudanese community leaders into the public space to defend themselves or to accept responsibility or to explain complex socio-economic phenomena through the lens of “Sudaneseness” is itself a highly racialised act. This further erodes the community’s self-agency and further alienates community members, especially young people. It widens the divide between us and them, and it is a breach that Dutton hopes to form between us and them. It is not only about us being frightened of them but also about them being intimidated by us. This is entirely a function of Dutton’s ideology.

Joumanah El Matrah is the CEO of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights