Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s race discrimination commissioner, will end his five-year term this month and issued a blistering assessment on Monday of the country’s politics and its commitment to racial equality.
Here are highlights and analysis of Dr. Soutphommasane’s speech, which he was scheduled to deliver Monday night in western Sydney as his last public address.
On the State of Australia and Race
Race politics is back. I take no pleasure in saying this but, right now, it feels like there has never been a more exciting time to be a dog-whistling politician or race-baiting commentator in Australia.
Five years ago, I wouldn’t have said it was likely that we would see the resurgence of far-right politics. I wouldn’t have expected that the biggest threats to racial harmony would come from within our parliaments and from sections of our media. Yet here we are.
Dr. Soutphommasane, a political philosopher with a Ph.D. from Oxford University, opens his speech with a damning, if obvious, diagnosis: Race relations in Australia are getting worse.
His comments come in response to what he later describes as a wave of offensive comments involving race, dominated by conservative commentators and politicians.
But his speech also follows a recent burst of activity by his office that included several data-heavy reports showing the wide gap between Australia’s ethnically diverse population and the mostly white elites running government and business.
Last month, he was co-author of a report showing that Australia’s leading companies are failing to take advantage of the nation’s cultural and linguistic diversity and are losing out as a result.
Before that, he introduced an even more comprehensive look at the lack of diversity in government, large corporations and academia.
In our story about it, we quoted this key conclusion: “Although those who have non-European and Indigenous backgrounds make up an estimated 24 percent of the Australian population, such backgrounds account for only 5 percent of senior leaders.”
On ‘Yellow Peril’ and Fears of China
The specter of history never lurks far away from our public debates. Consider the debate about foreign influence. Notable commentators have suggested there is a ‘silent invasion’ of Australia being conducted by China, with the Chinese party-state planting ‘fifth column’ operatives within our public institutions. It goes without saying that we must protect our democratic institutions from foreign interference. This should give no excuse, though, for some to rerun old fears about the Yellow Peril.
He goes on to cite specific examples of the trickle-down impact of the discussion, including an incident involving Jenny Leong, a Greens party lawmaker in the New South Wales Parliament, who was harangued by a woman who said: “You are taking over. I know your plan. We are all now second-class citizens because you Chinese are taking over.”
On the Media’s ‘Monetization of Racism’
It’s not just politics that is behind this. Alongside the politicization of racial fear, we are also seeing the monetization of racism.
Sections of a fracturing media industry, under the strain of technological disruption, seem to be using racism as part of their business model.
The Australian media landscape is one of the most highly concentrated in the world, and Dr. Soutphommasane is arguing that some media outlets are using racism to attract eyeballs.
These tend to be outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Sky News Australia, a Murdoch-owned cable news channel, faced withering criticism for airing an interview with Blair Cottrell, the former leader of an anti-Islam, far-right group who has expressed pro-Nazi views.
On Sunday, it admitted on Twitter that “it was wrong” to have done so.
The Australian Press Council also recently received complaints after Andrew Bolt, a conservative commentator for News Corporation, wrote a column last week that described “a tidal wave of immigrants” sweeping away “what’s left of our national identity.”
On ‘Ethnic Ghettos’
Take multiculturalism. There is simply no compelling evidence that Australian multiculturalism is in danger of veering towards ethnic separatism. The evidence shows that we continue to conduct integration extremely well. The children of migrants, on average, outperform the children of Australian-born parents on education and employment. Our social mobility remains high by international standards. Many of those areas which people slander as ethnic ghettos are dynamic and vibrant communities, where no one single ethnic or racial group predominates, and where property prices have been on the rise — hardly signs of ghettos.
Dr. Soutphommasane grew up in Fairfield, an area of Sydney that has long been the first stop for immigrant families like his own — and here he is arguing that those who fear such areas do not understand how they work.
Within a generation, research from the United States and other countries shows, integration tends to accelerate rapidly, with many children of immigrants becoming high achievers.
Migration scholars also point out that social cohesion requires adjustments by both newcomers and long-term residents; white majorities need to assimilate to their own changing country, too.
Australia is filled with areas where this has already happened. Pyramid Hill, in rural Victoria, is one example.
Carlton, the Italian area of Melbourne, and Cabramatta, where the first Vietnamese refugees settled, would also count.
On Double Standards
On the so-called Sudanese crime crisis in Melbourne, if we turn to the facts, we know that in Victoria Sudanese-born people aren’t the only ones overrepresented in crime statistics. It is also the case that those born in Australia and in New Zealand are also overrepresented in Victorian crime statistics.
But why, then, all the attention on crimes committed by those from Sudanese backgrounds, but so little on Australian- or New Zealand-born offenders?
Conversations about race and crime tend to follow a historical pattern: In Australia and elsewhere, crimes committed by newly arrived immigrants or minorities tend to be attributed to problems with an entire group, rather than individual criminals.
This has been especially true for the Sudanese-Australian community, which has come under unwelcome — and some say, unwarranted — attention after Australia’s most senior politicians have pointed to its members as a cause of crime and violence in Melbourne.
In fact, according to Victoria’s Crime Statistics Agency, criminal offenders born in Sudan make up about 1 percent of all offenders. That’s greater than their proportion of the total population in Victoria, but state figures show that is also true of Australian-born offenders (who make up almost 72 percent of criminal offenders and roughly 65 percent of the population) and New Zealanders (who are 2.2 percent of offenders and 1.6 percent of the population in Victoria).
‘Snowflakes Who Can’t Hack it’
We’re talking about an identity politics that is about reinforcing a hierarchy of voice and power in Australian society. Complaints about anti-racism stifling free speech are about a resentment of minorities being able to speak up. They’re the complaints of snowflakes who can’t hack it when people challenge racism.
This is as aggressive as the generally mild-mannered Dr. Soutphommasane gets.
Using the “snowflake” insult often deployed by the right to condemn liberal college students for their sensitivity, he is calling white Australians who are angry about assessments of racism weak and unwilling to confront reality.
On ‘Parochial Fragility’
The sobering reality is that many in our society struggle with even talking about racism. The real political correctness on this doesn’t come from the Racial Discrimination Act but from a parochial fragility. It’s a fragility that explains why when racism is called out, the real offense in some people’s eyes is not that an act of discrimination occurred, but rather that someone was subjected to being called racist. People should look at it another way: if you don’t want to be called racist, you can start by not doing something racist.
More tough talk from Dr. Soutphommasane — especially on the point that some people are less offended by a racist act than by someone calling it what it is.
But more broadly, what is interesting is that he spends more time in his speech calling out these kinds of individual actions than he does focusing on systems of structural racism.
He acknowledges at one point that “prejudice and discrimination are like the permanent stains of our humanity,” but phrases like “implicit bias” or “unconscious bias” — schools of thought explaining that racist outcomes are often tied to historical and unseen influences that shape us all, regardless of background — do not appear in Dr. Soutphommasane’s speech.
The impression he leaves, after five years, is one that leans heavily on personal accountability and responsibility: He has done his job to combat racism in Australia. What will others do?