As the term of the Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane comes to an end, it is worth reflecting on his highly charged term and what it illustrates about how we conduct race debates. He gave his final speech this week at the University of Western Sydney where he criticised conservative politicians and media for race-baiting and veiled references to white identity politics.
But what Soutphommasane and his allies keep missing is that the rise of white identity politics is a Newtonian reaction to Islamic extremism and the failures of the political and media class to give voice to growing anxieties around migration and race.
One of the biggest weaknesses of Western democracies is the inability to discuss race honestly. From Brexit to Trump to local debates around African gangs or migration, there are consistent attempts to deny or underplay bald facts and statistics.
The Democrats led by Hilary could not utter the word Islam. Legitimate claims by supporters of Brexit about European migration undermining jobs were only ever met with accusations of racism.
Locally we have seen the great difficulty in acknowledging facts such as the gross over-representation of Africans in crimes like robbery or carjacking in Victoria, by a factor of forty no less. Premier Daniel Andrews and his media allies consistently apply the line that at least Australian born residents perpetrates the majority of crime. We can all just relax and turn the other cheek.
I sat on a government advisory committee with Tim Soutphommasane and consider him a friend. However, there are three key areas I would criticise him upon.
In parallel with deflecting or outright denying any statistical correlations, there is a steady attempt to dilute the definition of racism. The term casual racism, much like casual sexism, elevates the subjective experience as primary. This is part of the broader trend among progressives of what is sometimes called “concept creep”, the steady dilution in the meaning of terms like prejudice, violence, abuse or trauma. As a result, speech can now be categorised as violent it if falls under the category of hate and merely experiencing an event as traumatic is enough for it to be defined technically as so.
Like many a totalitarian project, the actions are cloaked in the good intentions of helping a wider range of people, allowing a bigger net. In practice, the trend allows for the repeated magnification of problems like racism and sexism in an effort to exert more control and stipulate for more regulation.
Soutphommasane openly states that intent is of limited importance in the new racism. The subjective experience and perceptions of a minority individual are more significant. In a speech launching a new anti-racism project in Queensland, the Commissioner stated:
It may be a joke, an off-handed comment, or even who gets included in chats in the work kitchen or water cooler… it is as much about impact as it is about intention.
This is particularly fraught in highly diverse societies and people of varied psychological vulnerabilities. The statistics the Human Rights Commission elevate are those of self-reported experiences of intolerance and racism, which prioritise the subjective. It also self-selects for people who are more attuned to attributing comments or actions as motivated through the lens of race.
What Soutphommasane refers to as veiled white identity politics when leaders make reference to a mainstream is an attempt to maintain some levels of objectivity in measures of racism.
There are many people of ethnic backgrounds, supported by progressive allies, who could find racism under the bed. The same progressive allies openly fetishise some ethnic groups, illustrated neatly by recent protests at a Lauren Southern event. One woman attempted to walk on the stage shouting, “I love Muslims”.
The other key tactic Soutphommasane and the racism industry is guilty of is elevating isolated events, often captured on phone cameras, as somehow broadly representative. The Goodes saga at an AFL match or events such as a tussle or rant on buses are perfect examples.
The Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker calls this tactic progressophobia. People are more likely to recall recent, negative events and mistake them for broad trends. We are then less likely to notice the extraordinary progress we have made on race and gender relations. To be fair, the Commissioner always prefaces his comments by noting Australia’s multicultural success, but the tactic is there nevertheless.
A notable example of our success is that cities like Sydney and Melbourne have the highest rates of mixed marriage in the world, a trend that would be unthinkable half a century ago when the majority of the population could barely stomach such a scenario, let alone celebrate it.
Even though the vast majority of us live in a harmonious, multicultural milieu with the world’s greatest rates of social mobility amid high rates of migration from countries like China and India, a moron withdrawing from drugs shouting abuse at a woman in a burka captured on a phone camera can bias us into thinking Australia is racist after all.
The final tactic is an outright denial of inconvenient facts related to race.
This characteristic tends to be very common in clan-based cultures where the moral axis is one of honour and shame. This represents much of the non-Western world. As a result, it is not a surprise if, for example, Muslim leaders baldly deny that support for extremist ideas or homophobia represents a large proportion of mainstream Muslim opinion. But in attempting to show sympathy for ethnic groups and stand shoulder to shoulder in fighting racism, progressives go too far.
They then endorse problematic views held within ethnic groups such as when television presenters ridiculously wore hijabs in sympathy for Muslim women.
They also underplay important facts that are necessary to help and adequately resource minority groups. For progressives, it does not seem possible to hold separate facts pertaining to an ethnic group if one of them is a negative. The Commissioner is guilty of this when calling any reference to facts around over-representation of ethnic groups in crime as automatic race baiting.
It is not mutually exclusive that the majority of an ethnic group are contributing well to Australian society yet there are also unique, disproportionate problems. African young men in Victoria are more than forty times likely to engage in a carjacking. An Aboriginal man is almost forty times likely to commit domestic violence. Someone of a Pacific Islander background is almost five times more likely to commit an armed robbery.
These facts, if uttered, immediately lead to accusations of racism, a charge that incurs no risk on the part of the accuser, as Soutphommasane has been known to exploit in encouraging complaints regarding the late, great Bill Leak.
The latest by-elections highlight the steady drift of support away from the mainstream parties. While there are a host of factors that have led to so many losing trust in establishment institutions, the ongoing inability to talk about race and migration honestly is a major impediment to a healthy democracy. Let’s hope Tim Soutphommasane’s successor might help steer an urgent shift to where we need to be.
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