The R word, fifteen years on

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. It’s OK to say that Adolf Hitler was a racist, and that apartheid was racist, but the idea that any actual Australian could be a racist is utterly taboo.

Of course, the same was true in the US. But after two and a half years of an openly racist Trump Presidency in the US, the taboo seems finally to be open to challenge. Opinion writers and individual Democratic politicians have been calling out Trump’s racism for some time, but news reports have stuck with lame euphemisms like “racially charged”, or saying that “critics have called it racist”

In the wake of the House resolution condemning Trump latest racist tweets, the ground may have shifted, at least a little. Quite a few news organizations have used the R-word, in their own voice, to describe Trump’s “go back to where you came from” tweets, and others have tiptoed towards the line.

Most notably. CNN political reports are now referring to Trump’s “racist jabs” in matter-of-fact terms, noting that Trump sees them as politically advantageous and discussing the implications for the 2020 campaign. (Hat tip: Daniel Quiggin). 

There’s still quite a few steps to go before the taboo is ended. Even moving from “Trump’s racist tweets” to “Trump’s racism” will take a fair bit of courage. And so far only CNN has used the word routinely. The NY Times hasn’t even got past “widely seen as racist.” . (For that matter, it’s still calling Trump’s lies “falsehoods” to avoid feeding ” the mistaken notion that we’re taking political sides.”

This isn’t just a matter of rhetoric. It’s difficult to do any kind of political analysis clearly if one of the main political tendencies can’t be named. Trump’s re-election hopes depend to a large extent on motivating racist Republicans to vote and on peeling off the remaining racists from the Democratic Party. Try to make this obvious point without using the R word and you end up with obfuscation or worse, such as the use of”working class” as code for racism.  

61 thoughts on “The R word, fifteen years on

  1. I suppose there are important differences between an individual uttering a statement that is racist and an individual being a racist in the sense of supporting a regime or a grouping that is racist in terms of its policy objectives. And there is a difference between an individual uttering a statement that is racist and an individual who holds public office making a statement that is racist and it being not an isolated verbal accident.

    It seems to me it is rather difficult to classify an individual as ‘racist’ on the basis of having used a word that is considered to be racist by others, who say twenty years ago would have used the same word, while living in a society that is tolerant toward just about every ethnic group they came in contact with.

  2. The “go back where you came from line” quote is the specific racist remark you called out. I just don’t feel that it is racist. Its more about nationalism and immigration than race. It bothers me that its being called racist.

    I know I’m not explaining myself clearly… Let me put it another way thats closer to home.. How can we convince Australians that more immigration is a good thing regardless of “where it came from”?

  3. DuncanE: I assume you are not from the USA. Around here, “Go back where you came from” is absolutely a racist taunt, which has been applied to a succession of immigrant waves for over 150 years. So much so that the official US Government Equal Employment Opportunity Commission explicitly calls it out as an example of racist bullying if it’s used in the workplace.

    A good way to verify that the phrase is not referring to policy is to check how many times Trump or his people have told, say, Bernie Sanders to “go back where he came from”.

    Personally, I mostly avoid using “racist” to describe people, and limit it to describing actions. This avoids the pointless arguments about whether so-and-so can possibly be racist when he has a couple black friends, since that’s irrelevant to whether a given action (where ‘action’ includes speech) is racist. However, there are cases where, in response to the question “Is this person racist”, it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.

  4. “The taboo lives on, obviously”

    Ok let me put it another way.

    What if we call Trump a racist. Then what?

    Realistically Trump is only saying these things to pander to his base of millions of voters.

    I’m more interested in how we change the mindset of those millions of “racists” than just labelling one person?

    The same applies in Australia with the likes of Pauline Hanson.

  5. I suspect it is because a number of different topics get mixed up with each other under the “go back from where you came” trope. In Australia, the discomfit that people experience when faced with somebody from a different ethnic and cultural background, is further spurred by other more progressive and superficiously acceptable motivations: the green: Australia is full; the Unionist: they take our jobs and push down wages; the urban Labor party member: they take all the good school places.

    It is good to break out from the taboo and call out these cover stories for what they are

  6. @DuncanE We start by dropping scare quotes and euphemisms. Let’s accept that millions of people in Australia, and in other countries, are racists, and that Trump and Hanson rely on their votes. Then we need work out what to do about that.

    For example, can we isolate the hard-core racists (still in the millions, I would estimate) from those who are racially prejudiced, but might recoil from the worst implications of “Send her Back”? I used to think we could, but now I’m less sure.

  7. I agree with Kevin Boyce. It’s better to label actions and institutions racist when they clearly are. Labeling individuals is a fraught process except in flagrant cases and/or for public leaders and public commentators who need to be held to greater account. There is the issue of implicit bias in all this. Studies show most people have some implicit bias and it varies in degree. Basically good people can be guided away from a part of their implicit bias when they are dealt with tactfully and constructively. Going in boots and all and labeling a lot of people with all or nothing thinking can be counter productive.

    Science shows that the hatred process has a neurological basis as do more positive love and nurturing feelings. In turn this means the hatred process has an evolutionary origin. However, the engendering and hijacking of hatred for its targeting at specific groups is not at all evolutionarily determined. That part is cultural. Changing culture takes a long time, often generations in fact. Look at the history of institutionalized slavery (measured in the 1,000s of years) and modern institutionalized racism (measured in the 100s of years).

  8. The dog-whistle politics of the so-called conservative parties in the formation and actions of neo-nazi racist groups is also a big topic regarding the AFD in Germany. For more than a year, the heads of the parliamentary party tried to use the accusation of racist or neo-nazi affiliations as a categorical defence (a bit like if you mention H then you lost the argument.)

    Some reactions by the public:
    My favourite: In a small town in former East Germany groups that are racist in all but name had announced a public event. The inhabitants reacted by buying up all beer in town – drying them out so to speak. The planned event fizzed out quickly.
    The police learned. In an even smaller settlement, alcohol can be bought only at a petrol station. On the day of the planned racist groups event, the police occupied the petrol station. It was a no-event.

    (These events often involve groups coming from all over Germany and from neighbouring countries – the pretence of strength in numbers.)

    A few days ago, racist groups that have not been banned as yet, had planned a big event in Kassel, the town where a few weeks ago the CDU Premier of the State of Hesse[1], had been executed (shot in the head while sitting on the terrace of his house) allegedly by a member of the said groups (the case is before the court, therefore the word allegedly). The expected number of event participants was about 500. According to der Spiegel online, only a few dozens arrived and were effectively blocked by about 10,000 counter demonstrators who did call them out on big banners. At the same time, a similar event in the former East German city of Halle was cancelled by the town administration.

    A group of artists from Berlin acquired (rented or bought, I can’t remember) a block of land next door to Bjoern Hoecke’s house in a small town in Thuringia and built a small scale replica of the holocaust memorial in Berlin on it. The Berlin memorial features prominently in one of Hoecke’s dog-whistle speeches. (IMO, Hoecke is a more powerful version of dog-whistlers in Australia). Hoecke tried to have it removed via the courts but failed.

    [1] Not to forget, a female UK politician was murdered a few years ago.

  9. I have found, regarding labelling actions, or even suggesting that a particular action may have an impact that is experienced as racist, still gets the ‘are you calling me racist’ response.

  10. I’ve been accused on this blog that in my writing/comments everything is about me. I am happy to be accused again.

    When it comes to racism and many other issues, the alleged victims are usually not consulted about their thoughts and feelings. They are either ‘attaced’ or ‘defended’ by those who ‘know’, have the ‘right’ to know, but are not part of the discussion (And some likely feel patronised. I certainly do. ) Is this racist?

    An example: I’ve lived in Australia for 20 years, now longer than anywhere else. Yet most people I meet outside work will ask me “Where are you from?” Some will insist that I give them an answer even after I try to signal that I don’t wish to do so (and if asked insist that my accent is ‘interesting’ and that they ‘can’t place it’). I find this distressing to the point of avoiding talking to people. Are they being racist? Or simply curious?

    One australian accusing another of being racist, to protect me or to defend me, I also find distasteful and pointless. My spouse will often point out to me that so and so is being racist. I am then tempted to see him as racist. His comments are more hurtful than the original according to him racist behaviour.

    So I agree with the earlier comments. It is impossible to force each individual on the street (or even each politician/public figure) to be ‘unbiased’, to rid themselves of prejudice.

    The accusations and counter accusations are simply a waste of time. There has to be a better way to make sure that everyone is treated fairly.

    The problem is that in the society we live in, ‘fairness to everyone’ has never been a well identified aim, that the society as a whole has strived to achieve.

    While we allow rethoric to be a legitimate way of discourse, poorly defined or not defined goals, etc. nothing will change.

  11. Of course we need those people who fight for and care about people who are attact because of their ‘race’ etc.

    (They should not have to use the word ‘racist’ to protect the ‘rights’ of these ‘victims’)

  12. AleD, regarding the question, quote: ““Where are you from?”, have you tried answering the question by stating either the suburb where you live or the region (eg northern suburbs, western suburbs, Melbourne…..). Over time you may get a feel for distinguishing between sincere curiosity, or an attempt to establish a social relationship or an undertone of something else, it being your ethnicity.

    IMO, depending on the circumstances, the question, where are you from, asked by an individual is not an a priori indicator of a racist checking for an ethnic background he or she believes to be inferior to his or her. Again, IMO, presumed superiority on ethnic grounds is an element I would associate with racism.

    Yes, during some periods, certain actions including speech in relation to various ethnic groups, may be considered to be undesirable by most people but they do not require a special category name. However, for quite some time the ‘ethnic card’ has been played by some politicians in various countries and this is causing unnecessary division, fear and confusion within societies. It is dangerous, IMO.

    I don’t wish to focus on the current US President, Mr Trump, because he makes no sense to me in so many ways that my personal response is – leave him to the professionals and the great majority of Americans who, I believe, can’t be fooled all of the time .

  13. Is racism always wrong? When I was a public servant, I worked with indigenous folk who got appointed via a special program that allowed them to enter the APS with test scores much lower than for general admission. The test was obviously racist as it involved differential treatment of applicants based on race, yet I thought it was a good program for various reasons, including ameliorating the poverty of indigenous Australians and counterbalancing, if only to a minor extent, the disadvantage indigenous Australians face due to systemic and entrenched racism.

  14. AleD

    I think you can misconstrue a friendly enquiry with racism. The friendly enquiry should be seen as a positive, we are all curious about others and it’s part of being accepted into a community. It’s not a colour, religion or race thing it’s more of a meet and greet.

    For instance if you go to Manhattan, everybody is from somewhere else and it seems to be no problem discussing your origins.

    The ‘go back to where you come from’ epithet is pure racism.

  15. rog

    Are you not informing me of what I need to do to fit in.

    I am not visiting!

    You seem to be telling me that to fit in I need to be happy to answer this question politly all my adult life. Otherwise I am not fitting in? Is this up to you to decide? Do I get a say too? Maybe I don’t feel that I am from anywhere in particular after all these years. Can you understand?

    Is this to justify that you likely would ask me too, if you met me, without considering how it makes me feel (rather than listen to me and acknowledging that maybe you don’t know how I feel, and that your curiosity should not take presedence at the cost of mu feeling uncomfortable)?

    Have you ever considered any of this?

    You are not recist, but can’t conceive that a person is not a static being. Even our body cells die and renew themselves regularly. What doesn’t change is the DNA, I guess. Given this you are effectively particularly interested in my DNA, and experiences from decades ago, you deny that I am a different person today, you limit my choices, constantly forcing me to recall (a painful) episode un my life.

  16. I would even add that being asked this question in a different country may be different (in a country where people are generally accepting, welcoming or sympathetic to people different from them, or where knowing the persons background would make them more sympathetic).
    In Australia, this is generally not the case (my background is not ‘illiminating’ to the person who asks in any way, nor are they interested in a serious conversation regarding my background or in sharing anything personal about themselves)

  17. @John Quiggin: “Let’s accept that millions of people in Australia, and in other countries, are racists”

    What exactly do you mean by that?

    Do you mean that millions of Australians have a positive belief that their race is absolutely superior to other races? Or, do you mean that, like 99% of humanity, they have some degree of subconscious racial bias? Something in between?

  18. AleD

    “You seem to be telling me that to fit in I need to be happy to answer this question politly all my adult life.”

    My dad was particularly sensitive to his origins, he rankled at the mere suggestion of difference and was overly reactive to the unspoken question; silly as he was from the UK.

    Perhaps he felt guilty at abandoning his roots.

    Yet others from the UK were happy to discuss their home and they made no bones about it.

  19. As to Desipis’ question, I think the overwhelming majority of humans, regardless of background, are likely to be racist to some extent, although they may be blinkered to it and much of it may be unconscious.
    I really appreciate studies like Professor Paul Frijters controversial “racism on the buses” study as I think studies like that give us something tangible to discuss. That study found whites and Asians were treated the same but Indians and blacks were discriminated against.

  20. Hugo “The test was obviously racist ”

    Clearly not. Racist were the people responsabile for aboriginal people being in the situation where they needed this special consideration.

  21. desipis

    Just looking at the situation in which aboriginal people find themselves today, the fact that they are not part of ‘us’, that they don’t have a place in our society, and the response to this of our democratically elected government, and our lack of action (and Hugo’s analysis above), should answer your question.

    It does not matter whether we consider ourselves superior or not.
    A whole group of people was seriously harmed because of who they were, and to add offence to injury, we refuse to properly commit, to right the wrongs (often even refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoings).

    This should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that we are all guilty of something serious.

  22. @hugo, if the modern issue of racism is about a subconscious bias that the vast majority of people exhibit, then what useful information is being posited by calling any particular individual or group “racist” in this regard?

    Is it helpful to fail to rhetorically or morally distinguish between the intrinsic human psychological and sociological mechanisms that translate statistical realities into subconscious biases and the explicit ideological belief systems that were used to justify the horrors of slavery and genocide?

    @AleD, firstly, I reject the Judaeo-Christian concept of inherited sin, so I reject that I or any of my generation hold guilt for things done in the past. Secondly, morally judging people for a lack of action on a complex and challenging issue, where experience has shown that action is as likely to cause harm as do good, to be misguided.

  23. desipis: “What exactly do you mean by that?” “some degree of subconscious racial bias”

    Did you happen to watch the documentary on Adam Goodes, The Final Quarter? It’s currently available on 10 Play if you create a free account. There was absolutely nothing subconscious about the racism Goodes endured. It could not have been more overtly expressed.

    Football clubs have always been hotbeds of racism. Private schools have always been hotbeds of racism. You can see the worst of both on display in that documentary, with idiots like Alan Jones and Sam Newman and Andrew Bolt and countless others leading the charge, and whipping up our very own Trump style “stadium mobs”.

  24. Nick,

    you have a problem
    Goodes was not the only other aboriginal playing AFL. there wee some 70 others who were not booed.including some in his own team.

    Goodes was not booed because he was aboriginal . He was booed because he was a tosser.

  25. despise “I reject the Judaeo-Christian concept of inherited sin”

    And this is your excuse for not wanting to distinguish between right and wrong.

    What makes you believe that your generation is better than those of the past (the past ones thought exactly as you do).

    The issue is too complex so this justifies your inaction and refusal of acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

    You think that sweeping the issue under the rug makes it go away and makes you look good. It doesn’t.

  26. The military is probably the worst of all. It is practically part of your training and conditioning to become racist. To create an enemy out of the foreigner, to demean and sub-humanise him (gooks, towelheads, etc). To hate and despise him. It’s difficult to get people to kill strangers mercilessly and unquestioningly without first teaching them to be racist.

  27. Conclusion?
    Australians are not racist, as found out by a small group of australians on this blog.

  28. *disclaimer: The small group will not have or accept any liability, obligation, or responsibility for any damage resulting from this finding (now, then or later).

  29. AleD, Your suggested conclusion does not follow from the discussion on this thread. It is a fact that the past cannot be undone. Therefore to make people feel guilty (as distinct from recognising historical wrongs; more on this later) for something they have not done is, in a sense, the same as racism. Just as anybody borne with a white skin or a black skin or whatever colour, the descendants of slave owners cannot change this fact; it is beyond their control.

    Recognising historical wrongs means to me in the first instance acknowledging facts and evaluating them in terms of current moral standards but avoiding rush judgement before examining the historical context. (How would you have acted if you had been transported to say Australia against your wish and found yourself in an alien natural environment meeting people you had no idea existed and had no influence on the command structures at the time?) Then the question becomes, what can be done now to ameliorate the wrongs of the past; that is stop the accumulation of the negative consequences and try to improve things now and the future, not because of a feeling of guilt but because people want to do the right thing now. This wish to do the right thing now isn’t always successful. But this is no reason to give up.

  30. Nick,

    how nay other aboriginals were booed?

    Just how was booing Goodes racist?

    Racists dislike all aboriginals in this instance not one.
    This is clearly a revision of history.

  31. nottrampis, of course you haven’t watched the documentary and choose to remain ignorant.

    But fwiw, how many Aboriginal fans were booing Goodes? Why were thousands of white Australian fans across the country booing Goodes every time he received the ball?

    Why did they dislike this one Aboriginal man so much?

    What was it he said or did exactly?

  32. oh dear now we have selective racism now do we.

    Racists decide only to boo Goodes and not the other 70 aboriginals.
    do you realise how absurd you are appearing?

  33. This documentary made me cringe – not being a footy follower I was unaware of the specifics until this production joined all the dots.

    The issue of booing Adam Goodes was well covered in the documentary. The film is to be made available to every school and sporting club in Australia.

    The line that he was booed because of his playing, not his race, was employed by Devine, Newman, Bolt, McGuire and others and is still be used today.

  34. I have a mate who is a swans fan. I am not as I s consider AFL with gridiron the most ludicrous of winter sports. He booed him.
    He was in clear decline in his final year. His actions to get free kicks or whatever they are called in AFL was seen as unsportsmanlike.
    In a game such as football he spear like projections at fans would have earned him a yellow card.
    I do note you have yet to specify on why fans were racist at Godes but mute at every other aboriginal AFL player.
    NRL fans did not boo aboriginal players either.

    so the boos were only aimed at Goodes.
    It is lubricious to describes this booing as racist

  35. nottrampis, you’re saying he was singled out for being an ageing player at the end of the career? Yet you accuse others of revisionist history…

    Why was Adam Goodes made Australian of The Year in 2014? Did you think that a well-deserved award? I thought his acceptance speech was excellent. What did you think of it?

    Are you saying Tony Abott was wrong to say about the booing:

    “Adam Goodes is a good bloke and he’s a great player and I hope he’ll get treated with respect and civility”

    “I can understand why he’s upset because no-one should be subject to taunts, they particularly shouldn’t be subject to racial taunts”

  36. Homer

    To continue to offer commentary, on a film you haven’t seen, on a sport you don’t like, on a sport you don’t follow, apparently based on the opinion of “a mate” is ludicrous.

  37. “The film is to be made available to every school and sporting club in Australia.”

    rog, I’m really glad to hear that btw. I think a lot of good will come from it.

  38. no Australian of the year is well deserved!

    Goodes is black and thus booing at him was racist!
    no reason is given why the other 70 odd aboriginals were not booed nor even of his aboriginal team-mates just of Goodes.
    Do you realise how silly your reasoning is.

    I am not commenting on the film but on the booing which was well documented at the time.

  39. This blog is a racism-free zone, and that includes defences of and apologetics for racism

    1.Desipis, you’re permanently banned.

    2.Nottrampis, take a week off and never comment on any topic related to racism again. Any dispute will lead to a permanent ban,

  40. If a mob lynches one black person, but leaves other black people unlynched, it’s possible the lynching was not racist, but it’s not proof that the lynching was not racist.

    If a crowd boos one black footballer, but leaves other black footballers unbooed, it’s possible the crowd wasn’t racist, but it’s not proof that the crowd was not racist.

    It’s possible to be a racist without being on duty all the time.

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