Ending racism does not require respect

| October 29, 2013

Today the Centre of Independent Studies discusses the importance of building a multiculturally diverse but socially cohesive society. Benjamin Herscovitch says that creating a tolerant Australia only demands benign indifference to diversity.

A fractured cheekbone, a broken nose, concussion, lacerations and bruising were among the list of injuries suffered by five victims of an alleged anti-Semitic attack near Sydney’s Bondi Beach on Saturday.

Coming on the back of numerous high-profile incidents of racial abuse on public transport in Australian cities this year, including a vicious rant directed at an ABC newsreader and noxious verbal onslaughts filmed in Sydney and Melbourne, the attack is a shocking reminder of racism’s enduring influence.

Sadly, as toxic and terrifying as these cases of abuse and violence are, racism is not restricted to a few heinous and isolated acts. The Bondi Beach attack or a racist tirade launched in earshot of a smart phone on a public bus grabs media attention, but as this year’s Scanlon Foundation survey of social cohesion shows, racism is a far more commonplace phenomenon experienced by far too many ordinary Australians.

With 19% of respondents saying they had experienced discrimination because of skin colour, ethnic origin or religion in the past 12 months, the 2013 survey recorded the highest level of discrimination of all six Scanlon surveys since 2007.

Overall, the 2013 Scanlon survey gives multicultural Australia a reassuring bill of health: 84% of Australians agree or strongly agree with the statement, ‘Multiculturalism has been good for Australia.’

Nevertheless, with approximately 10% of Australians harbouring negative or strongly negative views of multiculturalism, and as many as 1 in 5 Australians the victims of discrimination, multicultural Australia remains a work in progress.

Respect might seem like the most powerful and effective antidote against racism. To make society more tolerant, surely all Australians need to respect their fellow citizens, regardless of ethnic, religious and cultural background?

Although the project of creating a more respectful society is laudable, the admiration entailed by respect is both unnecessary to end racism and unachievable.

If all Australians held all religions and cultures in high regard, the social scourge of racism would certainly be eliminated. However, ensuring that no Australian is abused or attacked while commuting to work or leaving a place of worship does not require anything nearly as exacting as respect.

In fact, creating a tolerant Australia only demands blithe indifference to diversity.

The eight youths who attacked the group of Sydneysiders walking home from a Sabbath dinner do not need to develop a deep enthusiasm for kosher cuisine or rabbinic philosophy. They just need to care less about cultural and religious diversity.

Not only is respect not needed to end racism, but the more modest goal of indifference is the only realistic one.

The bulk of Australians respect different cultural practices and belief systems. Australia’s voracious appetite for food, films, festivals and much else from around the world suggests that most Australians appreciate and admire human diversity.

But the minority of Australians who berate, abuse and even attack strangers are unlikely to ever share a cosmopolitan outlook that embraces cultural and religious difference.

Instead of vainly trying to make the would-be perpetrators of racist hectoring and violence celebrate other cultures and religions, a more realistic solution is to convince them to regard those of diverse backgrounds with benign indifference.

Having made the journey from White Australia to multicultural Australia in a few decades, we have much to be proud of. But until an uninterested shrug of the shoulders is the worst reaction that Australians of all colours, creeds and cultures can expect from their fellow citizens, our multicultural project remains incomplete.


Benjamin will join Professor Andrew Markus and Dr Tim Soutphommasane to discuss the findings of the latest Scanlon Foundation social cohesion report at The Centre for Independent Studies on Tuesday, 29 October. Click here for further details of the event.