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Racism, look, it’s over there

Last week Jeff Sparrow was doing the rounds promoting his new book, Trigger Warnings: political correctness and the rise of the right. I used it as an example in the seminar I gave at the University of Amsterdam, on ‘Misplaced Identity’, organized by Sarah Bracke and Paul Mepschen to make my basic point that talking about identity politics as a distraction from antiracism is a distraction from antiracism. Then I came across this post I had in my drafts folder about Sparrow’s writings from 2016 which I never published. I guess his book is a culmination of those articles, so maybe this is a useful time to actually publish the post. But maybe one of the reasons I didn’t post it is because of how boring these ‘critiques’ are.

At the end of my last post I ended by saying that I had something to say about the ways in which liberal and ‘left’ journalists miss the point about not patronising, tokenising, and otherwise coopting migrants and refugees to other agendas and in fact reinforce it. I was thinking mainly of the articles churned out with relative frequency these days by Jeff Sparrow, either for Overland or for The Guardian that all turn around the same tired point, summed up by the following quotes:

 'On asylum seekers, a 'lesser evil' approach still mandates evil. That should be a warning' by Jeff Sparrow, The Guardian 14 December 2014.
‘On asylum seekers, a ‘lesser evil’ approach still mandates evil. That should be a warning’ by Jeff Sparrow, The Guardian 14 December 2014.

Supplemented by:

'What's the end game for Australia's border policy – a world of walled city-states?', Jeff Sparrow, The Guardian, 6 May 2016
‘What’s the end game for Australia’s border policy – a world of walled city-states?’, Jeff Sparrow, The Guardian, 6 May 2016

You can see that I’ve handily archived them in my Scribl library:

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 20.38.05In addition to the polls cited by Sparrow, the academic research he may be referring to is that conducted yearly by Andrew Markus for the Scanlon Foundation (which by the way @attentive has nicely diagrammed the murky ‘detention, logistics, urban development, political parties’ links of). These annual reports underplay societal racism by arguing that the issue of asylum is not close to the top of respondents’ agendas and that most of those surveyed are positive about ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’. The argument plays perfectly into Sparrow’s mantra that popular racism in Australia is not that bad.

He argues that ‘ordinary people’ are more concerned by ‘management of the economy’ (47%), ‘Australia’s health system’ (46%), and ‘jobs and protection of local industries’ (39%)’ than with asylum. However, the illustration of racism relied upon to make his case, that Australians cannot be held responsible for racist policy pushed on them by the disconnected ruling class, is taken from a completely different time and place. In the same Overland article from 18 May 2016, Sparrow notes,

When Enoch Powell delivered his famous ‘rivers of blood’ anti-immigration speech in Britain in 1968, he was backed by a significant mobilisation of unionists, with a thousand dockworkers marching to Westminster to support him.

Nothing similar is happening here. During the leaders’ debate at Sky’s so-called People Forum, the attendees repeatedly asked about house prices and the behaviour of the banks. None mentioned immigration.

So, he relies on incidents in the UK in the late 1960s to talk about anti-refugee and asylum seeker racism in Australia in the 2000s. This is consistent with the prevalent view of so-called ‘real’ racism as frozen in historical exemplars that seeks to sever the connections and continuities between them and contemporary events which, while different in form, content and context, nonetheless can be see as part of a recurrent pattern in which processes such as migration are continuously made racial. It is an ironic facet of the ‘postracial’ landscape that the eagerness with which the denial and ‘debatability‘ of racism is engaged in is not matched by a  similar willingness to recognise these patterns by listening attentively to what those who face racism say about its material and embodied effects. Rather, racism is the overt expression of fascistoid hordes such as those mobilised by Powell but not the fact that ‘Anti-refugee sentiment is generally seen as a winning strategy for the conservatives.’

Sparrow’s insistence on separating between those voters and the right-wing which manipulates them (unlike the ‘Left’ which Sparrow still hopes is ‘capable of articulating an alternative‘) is of a piece with a general drive I have noticed in much Australian research and commentary to minimise and even deny racism. While researchers such as Kevin Dunn and Jacqueline Nelson have addressed the frequency of racism denial in their work on racist attitudes, the lens has not been trained on scholars, commentators and public figures invested in denial as a purported antiracist strategy. As I recently wrote for a forthcoming article, in relation to the Scanlon Foundation reports, it is not enough to look at public views on asylum to build up a picture of societal racism in Australia. By focusing on this so narrowly, as Sparrow does too, the ways in which race is indexed with (to use Dana Ain-Davis‘s concept) a range of other seemingly race neutral issues is disregarded. This is what I wrote in relation to the Scanlon Foundation report by Andrew Markus:

In 2015, the study found that Australians are generally positive towards immigration, have a respect for cultural diversity, and experience quite low levels of discrimination on the basis of ‘skin colour, ethnic origin or religion’: 14.5% down from a peak of 19% (ibid.: 23). However, the report found a high level of support for the government’s policy of turning back asylum seekers boats (over 40% in six out of the four respondent sub-groups). Moreover, attitudes on other social cohesion indicators such as the economy, ‘social issues’ and national security and terrorism, ranked 1, 2 and 3 in terms of importance, are not discussed in relation to race. So, while it appears that there is a high level of commitment to multiculturalism and immigration (though not asylum), there are concerns about Australia’s economic wellbeing, social issues such as ‘childcare, family breakdown, lack of direction and drug use’ and ‘the threat of terrorism’ (ibid.: 20).

It only takes a cursory look at media in Australia to see how both the issues of ‘welfare’ and ‘security’ are deeply racialised. While domestic violence for example has been consistently shown to be a society-wide problem (Goldsworthy and Raj 2014), there are prevalent views about its pervasiveness, along with substance abuse, among Aboriginal communities (Cunneen 2009). Similarly, the terrorist threat has been conflated with dominant negative attitudes to Islam and Muslims in general (Morsi 2015). Nevertheless, the compartmentalization of the indices of social cohesion that Markus presents in his annual exercises allows for the trace of race within the political dynamics that produce the attitudes reported on to be obscured. Thus, while racism, if associated with attitudes to multiculturalism and immigration, appears to be, to use a colloquialism, ‘not that bad’, the racial anxieties that implicitly undergird economic, welfare and security concerns are not laid bare due to an overall idealized commitment to a normative vision of a multiculturally cohesive present that is opposed to a racially aberrant (frozen) past.

In other words, the fact that welfare and security, are deeply racialised themes that are also made to overlap and cohere with asylum and migration, is completely glossed over in the report and in the partial definitions of racism mobilised by Sparrow and others.

So far so repetitive (as the Scribl screen grab above demonstrates) until the publication yesterday of a yet another missive from Sparrow in which his attention was now turned to antiracist strategy. Those angry with Peter Dutton for the aspersions he cast on the literacy and numeracy of migrants and refugees would do better than to call him names. What Sparrow called a dominant ‘call-out culture’ is responsible for a state of affairs in which a ‘a focus on language and symbolism’ has detracted from ‘real strategic orientation’. Although he lays the blame at the door of journalists such as The Guardian’s Lenore Talyor and Mark Di Stefano from Buzzfeed, I think we can make no mistake that his choosing to name ‘call out culture’ as reducing the fight against ‘Australian gulags’ to ’empowerment’ in the ‘Gwyneth Paltrow sense’ is a not-so-veiled attack on feminism and antiracism, (and black feminism in particular which has been continually run-down for engaging in ‘unfair’ calling out especially in online spaces).

After this ad hominem attack, Sparrow returns to his familar comfort zone:

'The problem with demanding a Dutton apology', Jeff Sparrow, Overland, 23 May 2016
‘The problem with demanding a Dutton apology’, Jeff Sparrow, Overland, 23 May 2016

His solution: mobilise anti-Dutton sentiment to generate ‘collective forms’ of opposition to state border policy that eschew what he sees as individualised calling-out that have little effect. I agree that personalising racism by giving it Dutton’s face (or that of any other immigration minister from either side of politics) is to utterly misconstrue racism. But to tether this argument to one which exonerates Australian society of its collusion with state racism and white supremacy going back to colonial invasion, and to under-handedly snipe at antiracists and feminists into the bargain, is wrong. Its only effect is to reprimand antiracists for making these connections because the ultimate aim (as has been true throughout the history of the white left) is to coopt struggles over migration, borders, identities, and so on to what is conceived of as a greater, more universal – read white – struggle.

I was happy to note I was not alone in pointing out the deep problems this draws out. Amid the hearts and retweets, this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 17.02.51




Alana Lentin