Recognising racism (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Back in 2004, I wrote that

There is only one real instance of political correctness in Australia today and that is that you are never, ever allowed to call anyone a racist.

This was one side of an unspoken agreement among mainstream politicians, the other being that no one would ever make a statement that was overtly and undeniably racist (this was the central content of “political correctness” in its normal usage). Both the use of overtly racist language and the use of the term “racist” in political debate put the speaker outside the Overton Window. The official debate was undertaken in terms of “dog whistle” coded appeals to racism on one side and euphemisms such as “prejudiced” or “racially charged” on the other. The peace was maintained by the fact that the political class as a whole shared a broad neoliberal[^1] consensus in which marginal differences over economic issues were central, and where social/racial issues were primarily seen as a way of motivating the base to vote the right way.

With the rapid rise of tribalism on the political right this tacit agreement is breaking down.

While tribalism (roughly, an identity politics of solidarity with “people like us”) need not, in principle, imply support for racism (I plan more on this soon), the distinction is a fine one, and has broken down completely in practice. There are at least two reasons for this:
* Political tribalism throws up demagogic leaders like Trump, Farage, and (in Australia) Pauline Hanson, whose appeal relies, in large measure on their rejection of political correctness, that is, on their willingness to appeal openly to racism.
* The centrality of migration to current political debate, inevitably bringing race issues to the forefront.

For the same reasons, it seems clear that overt racism is going to be a significant part of politics for the foreseeable future. Individual demagogues like Trump may (or may not) flame out, but the existence of a large base of support for overtly racist policies and politicians is now evident to all, and the agreement that kept this base from having its views expressed in mainstream politics has now broken down.

In response to this it’s necessary to recognise racism as a substantial, if deplorable, political tendency. First, and most obviously, that means abandoning euphemisms, explicitly naming racism and, even more, naming people like Trump and Hanson as racists.

More importantly, identification of policies, parties and politicians as racist needs to be the start of the analysis, not the end. It’s important to recognise that there are different strands of racism, often intertwined in the same political groups, and to distinguish their approaches and potential appeal. To give just a few examples, there’s
* “Scientific” racism epitomized, in the modern period, by The Bell Curve
* “anti-PC” racists, focused on the demand for consequence-free expressions of racist sentiments
* “separate but equal” segregationists, overlapping with
* supporters of racist immigration policies

Even more importantly, it’s important to take racist arguments seriously and respond to them, rather than regarding the fact that they are racist as putting them beyond the pale of serious discussion. As with climate science denial, we might wish that to be the case but it isn’t. On the other hand, also as with climate science denial, there’s no value in engaging with racists.

The problem is to discuss the issue in a way that influences those who can be persuaded, both on the merits of specific issues and on the need to dissociate themselves from racists. That includes people who might be sympathetic to some racist arguments such as “foreigners are stealing our jobs”, but are also open to an explanation of how neoliberalism hurts workers. Again as with climate science denial it also includes professional centrists in politics and the media who need to be pushed out of their preferred position of evenhanded superiority.

There’s lots more to be said on this, and doubtless it will be said in comments, so I’ll leave it at that.

[^1]: As usual, I’m relying on the “three-party analysis” of contemporary politics I put forward here.

93 thoughts on “Recognising racism (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. It’s possible but unconfirmed that the settlement at botany bay actually originated as a plan to send convicts to another “new south wales”, in what’s now northern manitoba. Someone grabbed the wrong map, people said “… actually that works, you know” and the rest is history.

  2. @Collin Street

    What possible evidence exists for this ????????

    Other sites were considered but no-one grabbed the wrong map.

    The Brits wanted an outpost close to the Spice Islands to balance the Dutch.

  3. @may
    Your #38

    “…the change to being “straiyuns” ”

    Hmm. Some years ago, in 1988 to be precise, the ABC RN broadcast an 8 part series titled “The Dutch Connection”. It was basically interviews with, and spoken ‘essays’ by, Dutch people who’d migrated and become “staiyun-ised”.

    I only remember a few bits of one episode (the 8th, I think) about a Dutch woman who had had a lot of trouble coming to terms with being “austriyun” – she just couldn’t hack it, “austraiya” was just so awful.

    Then apparently one night she was listening to a Dutch radio program (rebroadcast apparently) which described the experiences of an Indonesian man who had migrated to Holland. Oh, Holland is just a really terrible place, he lamented.

    Te Dutch lady had a kind of genteel epiphany: oh, she realised, he is saying about Holland just what I’ve been saying about “austraiya”, namely “This isn’t the same as the place I came from”. She said that after this awakening, she relaxed and started to see Australia not as a ‘failed Holland’ but as itself. And she found that thought here were things she was still not entirely reconciled with, there was also much to enjoy, too.

    So it goes and Bonegilla was a big success. Also, the parrot really is dead.

  4. Grueblean, I think I know what you are talking about, coming from Elizabeth in SA arriving in 1960 in the northern part which opened up to paddocks. Following the railway line you reached Smithfield Hostel for migrants. This was an unglamorous place, perhaps going back to ww2.

    Since many of my school mates were poms or Europeans, I learned how unpopular the place was, with lots of digestive infections. I had a dose of hepatitis myself in ’63, when the thing was at minor epidemic levels.

    Some of those mates and I were at Adelaide United’s A league championship win a few months ago, have come to love the sport But not without some fights along the way, way back.


    Was that what I have experienced at FB with usually sensible statesiders as to whistle blowers? I have learned that however charming statesiders usually are, it is best to give them a miss during elections, they become irrational and noisy and full of jingo and you don’t dare disagree with whatever hype is in the media.

  5. Some of the people who voted for Hanson, or, at least didn’t vote for a major party, did so because they live in socially and economically desperate situations. They are sick and tired of the major parties ruining their lives, yet have few avenues for addressing that. Putting people like Hanson at a higher level on their ballot than the major parties is about the best they can do.

    I caught a few minutes of the National Press Club (Adequacy of the Aged Pension), replayed last night on the ABC, and the panel were illustrating this in quite vivid terms: they related conversations with retirees who were so impoverished, they would turn off their hot water for several months of the year, and they would take their meals-on-wheels dinner and divide it up into three portions, eat one third and put the other two portions into the fridge for their next two day’s main meals.

    If that is how current retirees are living, something is very rotten in this country. This expresses itself in how people vote. They don’t necessarily like all that people like Hanson say, but they feel they have no other options but to put people like her ahead of the major parties. It is like what the Americans call a “hail Mary” pass in football, a last desperate roll of the dice. People like Hanson benefit from this.

  6. Unfortunately and in a nutshell, Donald Oats.

    All of the current turmoil comes from the long term application of, basically, Thatcherism, for want of a better term. The notion of civilisation building is murdered in favour of a self absorbed, self serving neoliberal feeding frenzy that is its antithesis, as consent manufacture falsely alibiis a sort of Gothic parasitism that valorises the darkest incidental historical distortions of human nature, now become a dominant determinant in human affairs.

  7. Have just read Yanis Varoufakis’ book And the weak suffer what they must.

    Mainly he addresses the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system, both the Nixon Shock of 1971 and Paul Volcker’s subsequent bumping up of interest rates to keep European surpluses circulating through the US (i.e. making Wall Street overpoweringly attractive to investors from the surplus countries of Germany, Japan and later China), and so maintain US predominance in a “controlled disintegration” of the world economic order after the breakdown of Bretton Woods and the Nixon Shock.

    He also some juicy tidbits penetrating insights about German attitudes to the European crisis, and American frustrations with that.

    As to racism, Varoufakis also describes the brutal strategy of the Brussels-Frankfurt-Berlin that is seeing poverty and thus racism flourish in Europe.

  8. @Donald Oats
    Your #55

    This is just a wee bit off-topic I guess, but did the Adequacy of the Aged Pension panel actually provide any numbers for those very poor pensioners ?

    Like, for instance, a single pensioner at the full pension gets $22,721.40 per annum (or about $437 per week) and a pensioner couple gets $34353.40 per annum (or about $658.70 per week).

    In addition, pensioners get all sorts of subsidies – not only Medicare but also Phone Bill discounts, car registration discounts (‘seniors’ pay only 50% of the full car rego in Victoria), travel discounts (50% reduction on Victoria’s public transport), taxi subsidies (if taxi travel is needed for medical reasons), electricity and gas supply discounts etc.

    It’s not a fortune, and you won’t be dining out every night or drinking Grange, but unless one is paying enormous rent, or paying off a large mortgage, it is livable – and there’s even a rent subsidy if that’s your situation.

    So it would be nice if our journos could actually quote some numbers and describe some circumstances so we can make an informed judgement, don’t you think ?

  9. @hc

    Ad hom attack? diddums you have been a protected species all your life. Get used to some more of this incisive deconstruction of your irrational and really quite stupid pronouncements about the economy and how it works for real people in a real world.

    But really Harry you attacked me first in my view some time ago when on this blog you had the presumption to assume that I was wealthy enough to donate to charity. What a hoot.

    That exchange verified for me that you really have no idea about the people who are by your economic theory too stupid and lazy to do as well as you have. You think we should be happy with ‘charity’? You give to charities so you can feel good about your self without any conception that charity is not what we need. We need a way to live in the world with dignity.

    You should have applied for the economist position that the Hanson team are employing. If he and it will be a he, comes from the US, we might want to check out the level of violence and lawlessness in that country before we let him in.

  10. @Julie Thomas
    Your #59

    I always thought that I contributed to charity just by not attempting to minimise (or avoid) my taxation – given the amount of taxpayer largesse that goes to Social Security.

    But I take it you and hc are old friends, yes ?

  11. @GrueBleen

    It is possible to live well on the disability pension in these small towns where rent is cheaper and failing to keep up with the neoliberal life style is not as shameful.

    If you are smart and creative and healthy and if you have family who help you out and if you don’t have credit card debts or health problems and if you have the personality type that doesn’t need a social life and if you have the internet, it is just fine really.

    Beautiful country, fantastic sunsets and sunrises and the stars in the night sky without electric lights are unbelieveably ‘spiritual’ and the long very nicely cambered curves on the long road into town after one turns off the highway are a treat to drive even in my old car. My neighbour who has his back yard full of old cars – even older than mine – that he will do up one day, drives it at 160 klm in his new car or so he told me when I boasted of getting up to 130. He is still working that is why he affords a new car with a sunroof.

    It is having family that makes life rich for me. My children fix my computers, my car, buy cheap stuff for me from the internet and make sure I am okay in so many ways but if I didn’t have that sort of support I’d have to kill myself.

    Health problems require a lot of travel to hospitals and medical places in the big town and the cost of all the medications that make drug companies so rich are also a huge problem for the poor pensioners I know. And the other things that exacerbate all the physical health problems are the depression and anxiety that comes from living in an economy that says there is no such thing as society.

  12. @GrueBleen

    If you use the Centrelink estimator, an aged pensioner gets $1004 fn after tax including supplement, rent assistance and energy assistance.

    Weekly 1 bed flat rents are around $200 per week with no security of tenure.

    This is 40% of a single aged pensioners income.

    For 14 days spending on food, clothing, phone, travel, entertainment, medical and energy, they have just $57 per day for the rest of their lives.

    If they own their own home, rates, water and sewerage, repairs, and lawn mowing etc at least equals $200 a week and they get no rent assistance.

    If the same pensioner also has a small residual mortgage to pay – things are worse.

    Hopefully in the future, most people reaching retirement will have some superannuation to boost their income.

  13. @Ivor

    And moving home is so very expensive if you can only get short term tenancies.

    Renting with only short term leases is expensive because there are standard charges for moving – like carpet cleaning, pest control that have to be done even if the work is guaranteed for 12 months and the lease is only for 6 months.

    Changing the focus here because seriously it is a doddle being poor at this time of my life. Being poor and without any support while raising children was hell and precarious renting is especially bad for single parents because it negatively affects the children and their future chances in life.

    “Moving to a new town or even a new neighborhood is stressful at any age, but a new study shows that frequent relocations in childhood are related to poorer well-being in adulthood, especially among people who are more introverted or neurotic.”

    lol I’ll vouch for that.

    It is much easier for well-off people to negate to some extent the negative effects for children that come from having to move often; almost impossible for poor people but neo-liberal economics expects labour to be free to move wherever it is more efficient for the profit takers to create the work and bugger the consequences of this policy on the quality of the future human capital that is being destroyed.

  14. And moving home is so very expensive if you can only get short term tenancies.

    Renting with only short term leases is expensive because there are standard charges for moving – like carpet cleaning, pest control that have to be done even if the work is guaranteed for 12 months and the lease is only for 6 months. Very inefficient and stupid.

    We are way off topic here but seriously it is a doddle for me being poor at this time of my life. Being poor and without any support while raising children was hell and precarious renting is especially bad for single parents because it negatively affects the children and their future chances in life.

    “Moving to a new town or even a new neighborhood is stressful at any age, but a new study shows that frequent relocations in childhood are related to poorer well-being in adulthood, especially among people who are more introverted or neurotic.”

    lol I’ll vouch for that.

    It is much easier for well-off people to negate to some extent the negative effects for children that come from having to move often; almost impossible for poor people but neo-liberal economics expects labour to be free to move wherever it is more efficient for the profit takers to create the work and bugger the consequences of this policy on the quality of the future human capital that is being destroyed.

  15. @Julie Thomas

    “If I didn’t have that sort of support I’d have to kill myself.”

    I think if we are all honest with ourselves we would admit this. Even those who are fully able in every sense (a fully healthy, compos mentis adult person with safe income or saleable skills for a living and also acceptable social skills for social interaction) will still realise they greatly depend on others, if they are honest. How many of us could grow food and/or hunt and gather food if there were no shops and supermarkets to go to? Very few of us, and that is just one example.

    I have asked myself how I would cope after the adult kids move out (please let it happen soon!) and if I lost my wife (please don’t let it happen!).

    However, I have answered the question for myself. I think I would cope by radically simplifying my life at home (minimalism it’s called) and taking up some new interests which brought me into more contact with other people. On the first count, I would actually treat minimalistic single living as a fun and interesting challenge. Let us realistically assume that this is after a difficult grief adjustment period which I naturally would suffer. I would seriously consider selling my current house and property (too big) and moving to a smaller property. My bias would be towards the same suburb or near environs but a smaller, detached house on say 600 sq.m. and across the road from some bush. This would be possible where I live. 2 bedrooms and a study would do, plus one bathroom, one dunny etc. if there is any house small enough. They are all too big these days.

    I would make sure this house was in cycling distance of a supermarket via firm, wide, bush tracks; also possible where I live. I would then adopt the following procedures. I would live without a fridge and without cooking except maybe for some very basic stuff. I might have a microwave, a toaster and use one hotplate occasionally. I might make a Coolgardie safe to keep milk and vegetables for a day or two. I would eat a lot of raw goods, salads, nuts, meusli, and stuff. Maybe boiled eggs. Meat, maybe a bit of deli meat used on day of purchase. When I wanted a decent baked or roasted meal, maybe once or twice a week, I would go to the local tavern or gambling club (where I would neither drink alcohol nor gamble as I never do either of these two things anyway) and take advantage of their meals as prices are a bit subsidised by the drinkers and gamblers. No cooking and no kitchen mess! What’s not to like?

    I would implement a “one of everything” policy to some extent. The house would be relatively bare. I would have 1 plate, 1 knife, 1 fork, 1 spoon, 1 teaspoon, 1 cup etc. You get the picture. Yes, I would also have 1 armchair, 1 TV, 1 PC, 1 bicycle, 1 car, 1 kitchen table with 1 chair and so on. I would have a futon not a bed. I would have however, 14 of everything wearable and do the washing about once a week.

    It would be easy to live simply and economically. But I admit I do have enough of my own money and income to make this above workable without a Centrelink pension.

    However, if I found loneliness intolerable or unresolvable or I started developing physical, neurological or psychological problems which I could see had a bad progressive diagnosis, I might plan ahead to kill myself (maybe). But I would discuss that with someone I trusted, maybe an appropriate health professional, and ask questions and get advice and think long and hard before doing anything rash.

    My wife’s opinion on this? I am sure she would channel Mr. Bennett.

    “My dear, do not give way to such gloomy thoughts. Let us hope for better things. Let us flatter ourselves, that I might outlive you.”

  16. Weekly 1 bed flat rents are around $200 per week … they have just $57 per day

    Assuming they’re willing to move from where they’ve spent their lives to somewhere that’s cheaper. If you’re silly enough to be forced out of a house in Redfern now that it’s become popular you’re looking at 100% of that on rent. I’ve lived in apartments in Marrickville where there were older folk renting, and things could get very ugly for them very quickly. If somehow they became unable to climb 4 flights of stairs to get to their apartment, for example, they’d be housebound or need to move to somewhere more expensive or much further out, on the ground floor. Or much more expensive, with a lift.

    When we were looking at buying we looked at one “investor special” where it appeared likely the previous occupant had been housebound and also a cat-owner. You’d need to take it back to bare concrete then epoxy varnish it, because you’re never going to get that smell out. But the smell was not strictly *cat* pee…

  17. Also, the tribalism thing crosses over with same sex marriage on this one. ClubTroppo sees an interesting justification for the plebescite much as above – the angry excluded feel that they should be heard, and if voting against in the plebescite helps them feel heard, we should have the plebescite. I don’t think throwing gays under the bus is a good solution to the problem of social exclusion of poor people.

    Prof Q carefully excludes another category of racists above, who I would call “genocidal”. Basically those who think our treatment of Aboriginal Australians is only wrong because they still exist. reaching out to them… tricky. Same as with the biblical Christians, who feel they have compromised too far by allowing homosexuality to be legalised.

  18. @Ivor
    Your #66

    Not really living on Easy Street then, is it Ivor. You’d need a fair bit of what Julie is saying – and very particularly family support – or things could get quite bleak quite soon.

    However, provided that one is reasonably healthy and mobile – because you wouldn’t want to be trying to pay, even at 50% rate, for rego, CTP, a bit of public risk insurance, services at least once a year plus weekly petrol, just to be able to get around.

    I guess an “ideal” solution might be a family that can put in a granny flat out the back for the ‘olds’ – at least for he ‘olds’, I guess, unless his ‘olds’ also have nowhere to go. And it sure fixes the family to a particular spot.

    But on the other hand, I had lunch at a Chinese stall at Chadstone Shopping Mall today, and a very large serve of chicken and noodles – basically enough for lunch and most of dinner, and quite nicely edible, too – cost me $9.50. So if one can get about, they probably won’t starve. At least not in the first week.

  19. @Julie Thomas
    Your #64

    You don’t get as much for your disability as we oldies get for our “disability” of age.

    Yes, clearly, you have a restrained existence – though I’m just a bit envious of your ability to see the night sky minus light pollution. I haven’t seen the Milky Way (which is basically what the word ‘galaxy’ means as I imagine you are aware). I can still see the triple-star system of Alpha Centauri (the brighter, further pointer to Crucis), and the double star system Sirius the Dog Star. Oh well.

    Personally, though, my ‘social life’ doesn’t much depend on people, though I do have lunches – at the rate of about once a month – with some ex-colleagues. Just as well I don’t have a penchant for following football teams (especially interstate) or a compulsion to watch live performances of opera (and Dietrich Fischer Dieskau is dead anyway, so I’ll never see him perform in Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg now). And the last movie I went to, and enjoyed, was the very first Alien (1979). Sheesh, I may have to take up chess again 😦

    But I know what you mean about Health related travel – which is why I’m still within fairly close range of the Box Hill Hospital and not much further to Monash. And very likely to stay so.

    Annd yes, you are indeed very fortunate to have involved, caring family.

  20. There was a time when I was childfree and it was wonderful. Like you imagine doing, I had the house exactly as I like it and ate what I wanted and did what I wanted. But when my only daughter kicked youngest son out of her house, he had nowhere to go but back home with his debts his bass and a big attitude problem.

    We are all good now but the ability to mediate those sorts of family fights and get through them is so often beyond the capacity of poor families. They don’t go to Relationships Australia when the marriage is starting to go bad. Won’t see a psychologist because those things cost money and there is always something more important for the money to go on like dental care or school excursions.

    Poor people don’t have anyone sensible to advise them on how to raise their children to not be resentful of the unfairness of a world in which there is a Paris Hilton and her sort of wealth. It is not easy to raise intelligent and capable children but it is so stupid to waste these children because of our mistaken belief that the poor are always stupid and lazy.

    I am not a typical poor person with my state provided university education when I was a single parent back in the day of social security before it became Centrelink and people became customers so I do much better than my neighbours do in keeping the family together and resolving the problems that create family breakdowns that exacerbate the problems of being poor in a rich world.

    I think GB you are far too insouciant about how the poor can overcome their poverty by buying noodles for lunch. That really is one of the most ignorant things I have heard; along the lines of the Marie Antoinette myth of let them eat cake.

    People who are poor are so beaten down and have been made helpless by the idea that they deserve their poverty rather than it being the way I remember when I was young when polite nice people said that the poor were just down on their luck.

    Now because of the relentless trash talk about single mothers and dole bludgers that has been going on for decades we poor people all know that if we are not doing well and not climbing the ladder we must be stupid and lazy and not working hard enough or, and the right wing people tend to do this, complain how they were held back by the government regulations that killed all their business ventures.

    It is so much more difficult to raise a good citizens when the parents are disrespected by the broader community. Kids read the papers and they can’t help but internalise the ideas about their parents being leaners and then the parent has less authority and respect from them and handing out advice is a bit tricky.

    Poor health and immobility that make people poorer than they should be and this is the major problem but who or what causes this ill health? There is a Boyer Lecture series on RN “Health Inequalities and the causes of the causes” which is worth reading – there is a transcript.

    There is no ideal solution. GB. Why would there be? Diversity is the thing.

  21. @GrueBleen

    I thought that the disability is the same amount as the age pension. It is only two years until I am old enough unless the age is upped to 70. But also I am better off than most because I do have another source of income and people are allowed to earn extra – not sure how much – before the pension decreases.

    I make things – amazing hats and things for ladies – and I sell them in a local cooperative craft shop.

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