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Why does racism keep resurfacing in Australia and the US?

It’s a powerful opening to a book: ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.’ That beginning of the famous novel, The Go-Between, remains incisive. What is more noticeable 60 years since L.P.Hartley’s words were published, is that the things ‘they do’ in the past keep resurfacing.

To see how unresolved issues in our history are still haunting us, you just need to take a short road trip through recent events:

  • Across the US, black athletes have been ‘taking the knee’ during the playing of the American national anthem in protest against the US police force’s treatment of African Americans and evoking the history of race relations and protest.
  • In Melbourne, Yarra local government council dumped Australia Day ceremonies as a stance against the unreconciled dispossession of Indigenous Australians. Darebin council shortly followed suit. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull branded the decisions an attack on Australia Day.
  • Back in the US, there was the fatal attack at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The rally was to oppose the relocation of a statue of Robert E.Lee the Confederate Civil War General. (President Donald Trump was criticised for his initial reaction that condemned ‘hatred bigotry and violence’ on many sides but didn’t single out white nationalists or neo-Nazis, before changing then reverting to his original position.) There were similar protests over the issue of statue removals in New Orleans, and North Carolina.
  • In Memphis Tennessee, the Orpheum Theatre announced it would not be showing the iconic civil war drama Gone With the Wind next northern summer because it was ‘insensitive to a large segment of its local population’. The decision ended a 34-year-long run of showing the film.

If the past is foreign, why does it keep resurfacing in the present – often in divisive ways?

Why still talk about and protest the past?

Yin Paradies, Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Race Relations at Deakin University, says history has always had a cyclical nature. It mixes and reacts with modern day pressure points, including the political climate and public debate.

'If you talk what about happened in their own life, people will say "what happened 20 years ago, of course it can still impact on me". [But] if it’s indigenous stolen wages, it’s "that happened so many years ago ... don’t worry about it".'

Professor Yin Paradies,
Deakin University

Talk about Australia Day and when it should be celebrated is not particularly new, he points out, saying the contentious day of celebration has been discussed since the 1930s.

And in the Australian context, symbolism is important. Prof. Paradies argues there has been little progress on indigenous reconciliation and recognition since the Kevin Rudd’s apology.

‘It’s a symbolic recognition of racist pasts and what you do about it that isn’t clear,’ he says. ‘Some people want names, some people want them maintained… some people think that even for Australia Day you can’t really celebrate it on any day.’

He asks: can you mix celebration with atrocities and the negative effects of colonisation?

Then there’s the difference between the way people view the past in their private lives, and how they see a shared or public past. People often deploy the ideas of cut-off points for political purpose, according to Professor Paradies.

‘If you talk what about happened in their own life, people will say what happened 20 years ago, of course it can still impact on me,’ he says. ‘[But] if it’s indigenous stolen wages, it’s ‘that happened so many years ago in Queensland so don’t worry about it.’’

Is the past more present in the US than it is here?

International comparisons are difficult, Prof. Paradies says. In general, Australians know much more about their history of colonisation when compared to Americans. But most race issues in the US aren’t to do with a colonial past. They’re about slavery and the black and white dichotomy.

‘There is much broader acknowledgement of black/white relations and the tension and ongoing problems there, but you don’t hear much about native Americans and their plight, their ongoing disadvantage,’ Prof. Paradies says.

In Australia, knowledge is improving over time with more acknowledgement of indigenous people, Prof. Paradies says. But there is still a long way to go in terms of understanding the suffering of indigenous people and their contributions they have made to society.

‘It’s not useful to portray indigenous people as entirely powerless and entirely at the mercy of colonisation for over 200 years,’ he says.

‘People will say ‘why do we need a treaty? These are problems of the past, Indigenous people don’t have any issue with racism anymore’. Some of this thinking is quite prevalent. Even current race relations issues are not understood.’

And then there’s Donald Trump

In recent examples of the tensions of the past re-emerging here and in the US, one of the common denominators Prof. Paradies sees is the rise of a rejuvenated nationalism and Donald Trump, a man whose presidency has already created an uncertain future.

The problem with nationalism is that it is often very exclusionary, he explains, and we see that in various ways here in Australia with debates about immigration and refugees.

‘Trump has promoted very divisive, exclusionary politics. That’s how it works,’ he says.

‘Indigenous issues and colonisations create a very specific sense of denial that doesn’t sit well with nationalist fervor.’

For Prof. Paradies, the cycles of history mean each resurfacing of the past is more intense as issues remain unresolved. And he predicts more tension, debate and pushback as the flash points of deaths in custody, racism in sport and race riots continue.

‘They are instances that become rallying points, whether that’s trump or racism in sport. You never know what’s going to do it,’ he says.

Interested in studying race relations? Consider studying history at Deakin University.

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Professor Yin Paradies
Professor Yin Paradies

Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Race Relations at Deakin University.

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