Monday, September 21, 2015

REFLECTION: Are Australians Really Racist?


The late Padraic Pearse (PP) McGuinness was one of Australia’s most eccentric commentators and cultural warriors. At one time a columnist for The Australian - back in the days when its editorial line wasn’t beholden to the SAS (and by that, I mean the Santamaria Appreciation Society) – he went onto take control of what became the rabidly right wing Quadrant.

McGuinness wrote on just about every topic under the sun, whether he knew much about it or not. He seemed determined to be a contrarian, even when his views represented the orthodoxy.

During a spring clean, I found a book of his columns entitled McGuinness Collected Thoughts* and was particularly interested on his views on social issues. Much of the commentary concerned topics of his era which would have interested me back then had I not been chasing other forms of anti-communist activism.

One column, dated June 20 1989 and entitled “THE MYTH OF AUSTRALIAN RACISM” is a reflection on Australian attitudes to East Asians in the days following the Tienanmen Square massacre. McGuinness claims
[t]he events in China, and the Australian response to them, have served to discredit another myth ... the myth that Australians are racist.
McGuiness claims the “myth” has been
... assiduously disseminated by various tendencies in the media … to paint a picture of Australians in general as prone to racist intolerance and hostility to immigration, especially from Asia.
So what does McGuinness see as the real truth?
The truth is that this is not an accurate description of Australian popular opinion, today, and has not been for many years, if it ever was.
McGuinness then moves onto our history of post-Federation immigration. He paints a rosy picture of a nation that has
... treated the immigrants with a tolerance and willingness to live and let live, and to absorb … The Australian experience of immigration and integration is one of which any country in the world could be proud.
Has it all been good? McGuinness acknowledges that
[t]here are difficulties, there are stupidities, there are plenty of cases of bad policy.
But that doesn’t detract from the overall picture that
... of all mixed communities Australia is one of the most tolerant and decent.


McGuinness then moves onto indigenous people. It would be a huge understatement to suggest that his views represent a mere contrarian refusal to accept conventional wisdom.
The accusation against Australians with respect to the treatment of Aboriginal Australians have been wild and damning.
I doubt Tony Abbott would agree with McGuiness’ assessment.

But how many people coming from other countries, whether English-speaking or not, can claim that the history of communal intolerance, of violence of wars, invasions, and conquests, have been better than ours? 

Gee, that should make us all feel so much better.
There is much to be ashamed of in the past for everybody – but to accuse Australians of being any worse than any other country in this respect is simply absurd. Often enough we have been better.
I’m not sure if that means we have anything to be proud of. It just means we are probably at least as bad or perhaps a little better than an awful bunch. Now, try not to fall off your chair at the following:
The mistakes toward Aborigines fifty or eighty years ago may not look so bad in the future … The point is that there is simply no evidence of any general or systematic prejudice against Aboriginals among white Australians.
Shall I continue? Yeah, why not.
Nor is there any general and systematic racial prejudice among Australians toward Asians, or toward other foreigners. There is indeed a certain amount of fear and hostility toward strangers. That is universal. There is a certain amount of red-kneckery” among those wo are not politically sophisticated or well-informed … But it is pure nonsense to say that there is any deep-seated racism and unforgiving intolerance in the Australian community.
McGuinness excuses those he sees as being wrongly accused of being racists. He says their behaviour is often natural given that an influx of people means more competition for limited housing, jobs etc. It isn’t easy for locals

... when established habits of life are disturbed, when new and not easily understood ways of behaviour are encountered. 

Does he have a point here? So by now you would have some idea of where PP McGuinness was coming from. Are his opinions correct today? Where they correct back in 1989? Was he partly right and partly wrong? Are Australians really racist?

*(1990) Schwartz & Wilkinson

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