The reaction to the death of George Floyd in the United States of America has focused the minds of many on Australia’s problem with systemic racism and violence towards our First Nations people. We should note with sadness that the deaths of hundreds of Aboriginal Australians in custody failed to capture the popular imagination, but we should also ride the wave. We should always take the opportunity to do as much as we can whenever we get the chance to act.
In writing this article I first have to acknowledge my own whiteness. Like every other migrant or descendent of migrants in Australia, I am the beneficiary of disposition and genocide. Whilst I think my activism against racism is a good thing, it doesn’t change the fact that I am a beneficiary of it, and equal in that way to someone who just migrated from South Sudan, or the most bigoted One Nation Voter. We are equal in our citizenship of a Country built on theft. Every migrant is a whitefella in this conversation.
We should also never allow the excuse that “others are worse” to stand. The founders of the Apartheid regime in South Africa credited Australia with the idea. When the United States was in the grip of the Civil Rights movement, Australia still did not recognise our Frist Nations people as people. Martin Luthor King Jnr said, “I have a dream” three years before the 1966 referendum that recognised the humanity of our First Nations people. The US Constitution of 1788 recognised African American slaves as three fifths of a person. As late as 1966, the Australian Constitution treated First Nations Australians as zero. It would be fair to say that in 1966, Australia was 178 years and three fifths more racist than America.
We need to be honest with ourselves and admit that we are still a very long way behind. Australia’s First Nations people remain the most incarcerated race on earth. Hundreds and hundreds of deaths in custody continue, seemingly without end or consequence. We keep taking children from their families at a rate that will probably be remembered as the second stolen generation. The COVID-19 advice was that healthy people over 70 should self-isolate, people with a comorbidity over 60 should self-isolate, and Aboriginal people over 50. That statement says that being Black in Australia is worse for your health than having cancer. It is not racist because it was said (and nobody seemed to notice), it is racist because it is true.
So what should we do? First, do what we are asked. The Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for a voice to Parliament. Let’s do it. Let’s also do everything else we’re asked. That’s the first and most important step.
But if we stop there, we are doing ourselves a disservice. There is an attitude that says whitefellas should only do what we are asked, and demands the victim do all the work figuring out how to achieve reconciliation. Reconciliation isn’t the responsibility of blackfellas, it is the responsibility of whitefellas. We are the ones who did the wrong, we are the ones who continue to do the wrong and we are the ones who continue to benefit from the wrong. Aboriginal Australians owe us nothing. If they are so generous as to provide us their advice, we should be thankful and embrace it. Not demand more. An approach that says whitefellas should only seek reconciliation in ways that have been perfectly consulted among the hundreds of First Nations, and that we will only act if they have a unanimous position is not supporting autonomy, it is wilfully delaying action. In effect, it protects and defends existing structural racism as effectively as all-white juries defended racism in the Jim Crow era of the American South.
So, let’s do more. Let’s keep doing more until we can’t think of any more ideas, then let’s think of more ideas and do them as well. Accidentally reducing racism by too much or overcompensating the First Nations people for disposition and genocide is something we should be comfortable with.
So here are some extra ideas:
Daniel Gerrard is Secretary of ACT Fabians, and is a Labor Strategist who has previous worked across Victoria, Western Australia, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory.