Extremism and race: slaying the phantom

There will be many views on the priority to be given to domestic race-based extremism and the best way in which it should be approached. Recently, Mike Pezzullo didn’t mention race-based violence among his ‘seven gathering storms’ facing Australia. An omission retrospectively corrected post-Christchurch. But his Harmony Day message displays an incomplete comprehension of this insidious problem.

Pezzullo’s condemnation of the “odious ideology of extremist white supremacist nationalism” and of “intolerance, hatred and racial vilification” is welcome, as is his emphasis on the need to guard “against the incitement to violence”. He endorsed the demise of the White Australia policy and embraced multiculturalism in his address to staff. But raising “the irrational mysticism and symbology of the fascists”, the notion of the “revival of ancient hatreds” coming ‘forth from the abyss’ through “the ungoverned space of social media platforms”, and “a revival of fascism”, goes nowhere near shaping the problem.

Race has no basis in reality according to the biological and genetic sciences, but has a real normative presence in politics and international relations. The idea of race is powerful and not just to violent extremists. There is a spectrum of race views. As a socially constructed concept, the meaning and significance of race varies between individuals and within groups, and across time and place. It is ubiquitous, and often subliminal, in everyday discourse and central to how many people identify themselves. Strong views on race are nor restricted to Nazis or violent extremists.

Real or not, race is a central constituent of our political and social world. That individuals on the violent extremist fringes should interpret the world through a racial lens shouldn’t surprise. Although a small but increasing number of people are prepared to commit mass murder on the basis of their warped reflections on race; singling out the racism of extremists as being exceptional obscures the authorising environment in which they operate.

Considerations of race have been and remain constitutive of Western or European liberal democracies, including Australia. From daily conversations to law making there is an unavoidable commitment to act on the basis that race is real. Affirmative action programs and hate speech prevention laws equally attest to this.

Repellent anti-Semitic sentiments and an enthusiasm for eugenics were not restricted to the Nazis in the 1930s anymore than today they are only found in one country or one social stratum. Prominent powerful and respected figures — like Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell, Winston Churchill and John Maynard Keynes — were enthusiastic white supremacists and advocates of eugenics.

Some of the more egregious racist laws persisted until fairly recently. Race and slavery were at the heart of the American Civil War, but emancipation and Reconstruction saw regressive racial segregation institutionalised in the Southern states under the Jim Crow laws. In 1948 thirty states still had anti-miscegenation laws banning marriage between whites and other races, with the last ones not being overturned until 1967. In South Africa apartheid only disappeared in the early 1990s.

Until 1966, Australian high profile politicians believed an explicitly racist platform would lead to electoral success. Alfred Deakin, in 1903, proclaimed that the White Australia policy doesn’t “mean only the preservation of the complexion of the people of this country” and “the maintenance of conditions of life fit for white men and white women”. It also “means a civilisation whose foundations are built upon healthy lives, lived in honest toil, under circumstances which imply no degradation”.

In his 1949 election speech Robert Menzies stood by the policy as “well justified as it is on grounds of national homogeneity and economic standards”. The prominence of “people of English, Scotch, Irish and Welsh origin” should not be disturbed by an “influx of people having different standards of living, traditions and cultures”, said Arthur Calwell in 1966.

These ingrained racial sentiments didn’t disappear wholesale from Australia’s culture by changing immigration laws. It would be absurd to deny that views of a world based on race, even if passive and non-violent, aren’t still manifest in day-to-day discrimination against foreigners and indigenous people, or that they don’t lie behind much of the public indifference to the incarceration of asylum seekers or the fate of indigenous youth in the justice system.

Herein lies a large part of the problem. The belief that certain characteristics are inherent racial differences can be found widely among the general population. Ordinary law biding citizens can harbour a hierarchical view of the world based on race. In politics, the media and the public square we often encounter the essentialist stance that when taken out of their own social, cultural, and political environment members of various races will always exhibit the same moral and intellectual characteristics; they cannot be assimilated into another culture. Not being true doesn’t prevent these views from being common.

That significant numbers of people will hold such views is to be expected. Elements of Australia’s cultural and literary heritage have the potential to provide sustenance to those predisposed to racial conspiracy theories, extreme racial views, or violence. A varied authorising environment can be found in the social, political, and educational environment in which potential mass killers grow up.

Nothing excuses the killing of people for their origins or beliefs. On all the evidence race is a mistaken concept; a terrible phantom. Yet, to insist clumsily that accepting race is aberrant, and to label as immoral or fascist all people that perceive race as legitimate, risks not just aggravating them, but also further provoking the more unstable or unbalanced individuals.

The conviction that racial differences account for behaviours and values in the real world, although erroneous, is strongly held among sections of society and simply denouncing it, or seeking to associated it with genocidal fanatics, is likely to see it intensify. An enormous, subtle, committed and calibrated effort, not just by Home Affairs and security agencies, but across politicians, media, educators, and civil leaders will be required to dismantle the authorising environment.

Copyright Mike Scrafton. This article may be reproduced under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence for non-commercial purposes, and providing that work is not altered, only redistributed, and the original author is credited. Please see the Cross-post and re-use policy for more information.

Also published in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.