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Race Relations in Australia: A Brief History

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Abstract

This chapter briefly surveys the history of race relations and the political implications of racism in Australia, highlighting the key moments that shaped the place of race in the country’s collective national identity. This includes a discussion on how racism evolved with colonialism in the context of the capitalist demand for labour, and the way it was used to justify the continuation of the settler colonial project. It explores the two distinct but interconnected aspects of Australian racial history: relations between settler-invaders and Indigenous Peoples, and the White Australia Policy that racially restricted immigration, particularly from Asian countries. The roots of racism are embedded in a history marked by wars, dispossession and colonial expansion that advanced racist violence, conceptualised in the literature as settler colonialism. Such sustained racist and exclusionary colonial projects have ensured the continued dominance of White Anglo-Europeans for more than two centuries with long-term adverse impact on Indigenous Peoples who endured violence and other racist policies that denied their dignity and rights, and forcibly removed Indigenous children. Scholars have argued that segregationist and assimilationist policies institutionalised racism in Australia, and helped maintain Anglo-Celtic hegemony and white domination. Post-War skilled and unskilled labour needs played a key role in affecting immigration policy in Australia, and led to the arrival of non-British migrants from Europe. As Australia’s demography kept changing because of the expanding migration programs, the racially motivated assimilationist project faltered. Since then Australia has gradually moved in the multicultural direction as cultural diversity has increased. Yet, Australian multiculturalism continues to unequally positions different ethnic groups, and privileges Anglo-Celtic heritage within the national framework, including in institutional power and in political leadership. Interpersonal and institutional racism remain entrenched in Australia, as evidenced in everyday racism, anti-migrant sentiments and extreme levels of Indigenous incarceration. This chapter also discusses the social climate of Australian race relations in the context of various policies including the White Australia Policy, the Racial Discrimination Act and Australia’s multicultural policies and their impact on both interpersonal and institutional racism.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The next chapter will discuss the historical roots of racism and how it is closely aligned with colonialism and capitalism.

  2. 2.

    Cook was actually a lieutenant by rank although he became captain of HMS Endeavour.

  3. 3.

    Of the 1066 people who have sailed aboard eleven ships, 31 people are said to have died during the voyage that took more than eight months (MacIntyre, 2004).

  4. 4.

    Among the early Indigenous Peoples who resisted the settler colonists were the Eora, Bidjigal and Wiradjuri peoples.

  5. 5.

    Estimates of the number of Indigenous Peoples at the time of British Colonisation in 1788 vary from 300,000 to around 1.5 million (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2019; Bultin, 1993; Dudgeon et al., 2010).

  6. 6.

    The Myall Creek massacre led to an exceptional inquiry that resulted in the trial and execution of seven colonists.

  7. 7.

    This conception of the Indigenous Peoples reflects the colonialist imagination of Indigenous societies as primitive and savage. Elsewhere, the representation of colonised societies as alien other, irrational, indolent, decayed and despotic has been conceptualised as Orientalism (Said, 1979).

  8. 8.

    In a 2014 interview broadcast, Channel Seven’s Sunday Night program, the former Prime Minister categorically stated: “I didn’t believe genocide had taken place, and I still don’t” (Davidson, 2014).

  9. 9.

    The steady growth of immigration halted in the 1890s because of recession and severe droughts that led to widespread unemployment.

  10. 10.

    In 1840, more than 67% of the Australian population were male, and until 1868, nearly 85% of those transported as convicts were male. In the 1890s, the male population was just 53% (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006).

  11. 11.

    A 1948 Australian Gallup Poll Survey indicates that 30% of respondents agreed that an Asiatic woman who married an Australian man should not be allowed to live in Australia.

  12. 12.

    One of the terms of reference of the report involved tracing “the past laws, practices and policies which resulted in the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families by compulsion, duress or undue influence, and the effects of those laws, practices and policies” (HREOC, 1997, p. 2).

  13. 13.

    Some of the justifications given include “sending for service”, “neglect”, “being Aboriginal”, “welfare”, “apprenticeship”, “at risk of mortality”, “orphan”, or “absence of parent”.

  14. 14.

    Many scholars argue that the story of the Stolen Generation amounts to a state sponsored cultural genocide (van Krieken, 1999).

  15. 15.

    Racial Discrimination Act 1975, Section 9(1).

  16. 16.

    The Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) was established to manage multicultural radio services, and officially commenced broadcasting in 1978. For more on media and race relations see Chapter 6.

  17. 17.

    The Commission replacing the Human Rights Commission that was established in 1981.

  18. 18.

    In 1998, in a reversal of fortune, the One Nation Party lost in election and a second Aboriginal person was elected into the Australian Parliament.

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Elias, A., Mansouri, F., Paradies, Y. (2021). Race Relations in Australia: A Brief History. In: Racism in Australia Today. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-16-2137-6_2

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