Plenty has already been written – by people far more knowledgeable than I – about the events in Ferguson following the decision not to indict a police officer for the shooting of a black teenager. There’s also been a lot written about First Contact, the SBS TV show that exposed white Australians to the lived experiences of indigenous Australians, again, by people with a lot more experience in these areas than I. Having acknowledged that, I still think that there is something to say by the person in the street – if they do nothing else, these tv shows have raised awareness about one of the festering sores in Australia – and the US: the nature of the racism. Unfortunately, racism and particularly institutional racism remains an issue that we would prefer to avoid talking about, avoid looking at or even thinking about it, despite the deleterious effects that it continues to have on our society.
But it’s a tricky subject – and that’s what I think is missing from much of the discussion. It’s not out and out racism – the kind that is easy to spot. Nobody – well, at least nobody here – is saying that people with darker skin are subhuman or animals. Instead, it’s the argument of privilege – these people get more than me, these people have an easier life, these people are criminals – and, so the argument goes, that’s not fair. It’s like the arguments about inequality have been flipped on their head and are being used by white people to justify the anger they feel at what they perceive is unfairness.
At its heart, though, this is an issue of inequality and poverty. It’s a sad fact that, in Australia, the indigenous population are more likely to live in poverty. And linked to poverty are all kinds of indicators – higher crime rates, lower education, more domestic violence and so on. It’s a brutal equation, made worse by the fact that it is so much harder for people to escape from poverty once it becomes endemic. It’s not simply a matter of ‘making something of yourself’ as is claimed by some; these people are ignorant of the privileges that they have experienced since birth. That’s why there are startling links between very poor white communities and those very poor indigenous communities: it is not so much a matter of race, as much as it is a matter of poverty. It just happens that there are more groups from one particular race living in poverty – and the dislocation from their culture and their land has had a terrible effect upon the structures in their communities that used to alleviate this.
It is not, as is often described, ‘the aboriginal problem’. Rather, it is the Australian problem. Our attitudes, our ways of life, even our ways of speaking about groups in Australian society are the problem here, as is the rapidly growing inequality between the haves and the have-nots. It’s easy to talk about these kinds of issues, but it’s much, much harder to solve problems. It is my belief, however, that change must come from within, and it must begin with education.