The race rhetoric that causes more harm than harmony
George Floyd’s cruel murder is sparking much-needed conversations about justice and racial harmony in America and beyond. The ripple effect has already reached us Down Under, with protests planned for Australian capital cities this weekend.
Yesterday I spoke with a friend who has ministered among indigenous Australians for decades. He told me that in some regional jails he has visited, Aboriginal men made up over 70 percent of the prison population. Whatever landed them there, this is a deeply troubling picture.
In a recent survey, 10 percent of Australians said they would tell jokes about indigenous Aussies. 10 percent said they wouldn’t employ an Aboriginal person. About 20 percent said they would move away if a First Nations person sat next to them.
Pre-judging someone—making negative judgments about them based on the shade of their skin—is textbook racism. Racism does still exist here in Australia, and it is a problem we need to address.
But there is an emerging rhetoric around racism that is causing more harm than harmony. It is most easily identified by its blanket claims about white people and Western nations.
Countless American celebrities have brandished this rhetoric in recent days.
In an expletive-laden Instagram post, pop singer Billie Eilish let loose at white Americans, declaring, “You are not in need. You are not in danger... Society gives you privilege just for being white… We have to address hundreds of years of oppression of black people.”
Kylie Jenner told her followers, “We’re currently dealing with two horrific pandemics in our country, and we can’t sit back and ignore the fact that racism is one of them.”
On Instagram, Mandy Moore wrote, “White friends… we have the burden of dismantling white supremacy.”
Viola Davis also posted, explaining, “This is what it means to be Black in America. Tried. Convicted. Killed for being Black. We are dictated by hundreds of years of policies that have restricted our very existence and still have to continue to face modern day lynchings.”
All of us should yearn for justice, for George Floyd and for anyone wrongly treated—especially at the hands of those paid to protect us. Voices are always needed to ‘speak truth to power,’ since even the best societies produce inequality.
But so much of what we are seeing from our culture creators, the news media, and on social channels is actually stoking racial grievances rather than healing them.
This rhetoric claims that countries like America and Australia are racist from root to branch. It demands that we hate our own nations as a kind of ideological purity test.
It makes an unbreakable link between the past and the present, staying silent about the wrongs made right by great nation-shaping events. Slavery and Jim Crow are no more in the US because of civil war and the civil rights movement a century later. Indigenous Australians are equal citizens because of reforms in 1948 and 1967, and the apology of 2008 still carries huge significance for our nation.
But the rhetoric that ignores this implicates all white people—even the most open-hearted and caring—as the problem. It convinces people of colour that the white majority should be assumed racist and a threat before the facts are in.
In short, it is a brand new worldview that actually mirrors the prejudices it seeks to replace.
Our nations still have problems to address. But resurrecting pain from centuries past dishonours the progress we have all made, and it reopens wounds that had already begun to heal.
There are many statistics that challenge claims of systemic racism. In America, for example, only 4 percent of all black homicide victims are killed by police officers—93 percent actually die at the hands of fellow African-Americans. White people are at least 1.3 times more likely than black people to be killed by police.
And while police treatment of black people is a serious problem in the US, the national news there mostly draws attention to murders when they are white-on-black. This is an unwarranted slant that, regardless of intent, ends up stoking racial grievances.
Here in Australia, Aboriginal deaths in custody are a terrible reality, and First Nations people are tragically overrepresented in our justice system.
But we are not allowed to point out that indigenous Aussies are actually less likely to die in custody than their non-indigenous counterparts. “Over the last decade, the rate of death for indigenous persons in prison custody has generally been lower than that of non-indigenous prisoners,” says a 2017 government report. Or that the majority of such deaths are due to health issues and self harm—not police brutality.
Honest conversations must be had, but they won’t be honest if we close one eye to the facts, or fail to acknowledge how far we’ve already come towards justice.
Racism still exists in the West. And some of our saddest injustices are complex and difficult to resolve. But what’s remarkable about nations like America and Australia isn’t that we’re racist. Racism is still found in every country. Rather, we are remarkable because we have relented from—and survived—former cruelties like massacre, segregation, and slavery.
As a result, we now live together in stable multi-ethnic societies that provide hope, opportunity, and even a leg up for those who seek it. Our laws protect human rights and dignity for all people—even compensating for disadvantage—unlike so many places still today, and from time immemorial.
Let’s be straight: if the West really is so evil, why would we advocate for asylum seekers to find refuge and a better life here? And if America is so racist, how did a country with a 13 percent black population elect a black president—twice?
A person used to be called a racist if they treated people from another race unfairly. Now, it seems, you’re a racist if you don’t see white supremacy and systemic racism everywhere, and think the West can only be redeemed by violent revolution.
So if I am labelled a racist, let it be because I want the best for people of every colour, and for the nations that have walked the longest road towards equality.
Let it be because I believe the words of Martin Luther King Jr who with faith declared to all Americans, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
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