Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Victorian police accused of racism towards African youth

As regular readers of this blog would be aware, I have a strange fascination with reading readers' comments on the website of the Herald-Sun. Primarily it's because it is Australia's most read newspaper, and thus I figure it's a good way to gauge the attitudes of the Australian public, or at least a segment of it. And of course, what I read there is often extremely worrying.

Normally, any news story involving Victoria Police is met by commenters complaining about how poorly they are doing as an organisation; how their top brass have no idea, and how the officers on the ground either don't care or have their priorities all wrong. Many of these criticisms are entirely justified, particularly when you read stories about police in Geelong conducting a blitz on jaywalking, while our streets at night increasingly become a no-go zone due to drunken violence and teenage thugs.

So what about when a newly released study claims that the force has another significant problem of racist treatment of young African people?

That story provoked 226 comments on the day of its release, but if you thought the readers would stay true to form and embrace another reason to be critical of the police, you would be wrong. Instead, the comments section turned into one of the ugliest showcases for racist thought that I have witnessed in a mainstream news outlet.

But first, to the findings of the study. Conducted by Springvale Monash Legal Service, it drew from interviews with young Africans and community workers in Melbourne suburbs with large African communities. It detailed examples of racism such as use of terms such as "black c**t" and "monkey", of overzealous harrassment of young African males for no apparent reason, and even an example of police removing their uniforms and returning to bash a group of African youths.

Now I have no idea of the truth of these allegations, and I would expect some level of exaggeration on the part of the young people who gave the evidence, but I would not be surprised if they were true. I certainly do not think that is a reflection of the whole police force. But it reflects the broader picture of how Africans can be treated in this country. This article describes some examples:

They spoke about having eggs thrown at them on the streets, about profound bullying within their schools, about being accused of "blackriding" (riding without a ticket) on public transport before their tickets had even been checked, and shoplifting when they simply walked into a shop. They described systematic police abuse, and felt that there was nothing they could do when institutions discriminated against them.

Now obviously there is a problem with some young Africans in Australia, who have embraced gang culture and do cause problems for police. (And we are not really talking about Africans in general, but primarily a minority of young people within the Sudanese and Somali communities.) The problem we are talking about occurs when the suspicion of these African youths becomes a suspicion of all African youths. A consequence of being an extremely visible minority is that any negative perceptions become amplified and extended to a whole ethnic community, in a way that is unimaginable with white criminals. Police on the front line who deal with the criminal elements of the African community might start to view all African youth through that same lens.

Sadly, this sort of treatment can perpetuate a dangerous cycle. In the news story, an African boy named Aran Brown describes constant harassment from police, to the point where now he runs whenever he sees them. Clearly this makes him look suspicious to them, resulting in further hassle. If young Africans feel that they are disconnected from a society that treats them with disrespect and suspicion, that sense of alienation can be what pushes them over the line and into the sorts of anti-social behaviours they were feared for in the first place. If you treat someone like a bad guy, it makes it more likely they will start to assume the role of the bad guy.

In reponse to the study's findings, Police Commissioner Simon Overland seemed to say all the right things.

"If (someone has taken their uniform off to bash a victim) it’s criminal and if we find evidence of that I would expect that officer, or those officers, to be charged,’’ he said.

"There will be a small number of police who clearly have racist attitudes and occasionally act on those racist attitudes and what I’m saying to them is where we find you we will deal with you in the strongest possible terms.

"I have to acknowledge that like the broader community, undoubtedly we will have some people who have racist attitudes. That is not okay.
"It is particularly not okay if they act on those racist attitudes in a work context and where I find evidence of that those people can expect to be dealt with very decisively because it is simply not okay for people to hold those attitudes or to act on them in Victoria Police,’’ he said.
“Clearly there are some tensions and there is some more work we need to do out there." He said the problem had its roots in "a whole series of reasons".
“This is not a new problem. With every wave of migration, we’ve had problems with youths. If you go back far enough it was the Italian wave, the Greek wave, the Vietnamese wave and what we’re seeing now is a wave of migration coming out of Africa. And predictably we’re seeing some tensions with youth."
“We are dealing with it. But we’re not going to get it right every time.”
Nothing wrong with that; anyone who thinks there would not be racist elements within the police force is dreaming. Clearly racism is present, as well as corruption, sexism, homophobia and a whole host of undesirable traits, simply because police officers are humans and will thus display these traits as will anyone else.
But judging by the the response from readers, there is very little appreciation of this fact. As Overland said, the police are a reflection of the community, and some in the community have racist views; and those views were quite brazenly on display among the Herald-Sun readership:

Rita
All this for being innocent bystanders, right? I'm sick of this politically correct shite of treating Africans and other "non whites" with kid gloves. Perhaps Aran Brown would be better off in the country he left behind. Sick of racism yes, but directed at whites...and proud of my skin colour.
Comment 3 of 226

Stevo of Yarrambat
What a load of crap. These thugs deserve everything they get. Go into their territory, see how intimidating and threatening and abusive they are to Aussies. Back the cops up otherwise these low life scum will control the streets.
Comment 6 of 226

You don't like it of GO HOME
If you don't like it then move back overseas. Crimes have gone up since so many people have been allowed in the country. The cities are over populated with gangs and crims. Parents have no control or even any ideas where their darling children are as they are busy playing the pokies and drinking all their dole payments away.
Comment 10 of 226

Ian Astbury of St Albans
This is not a symptom of racism but rather a failure of governments failed refugee and immigration policies. These African groups like the Indians play the race card every-time an incident happens. The real issue is that these groups come from societies where racism is rife i.e Zulus and Caste system. I say time to close the door on these groups who cannot integrate into Australian society.
Comment 97 of 226

hearditallbefore
Sounds more like African criminals are feeling the heat so they've pulled out the old tried and tested racism card compliments of the advocacy groups. Seen and done all before by the certain other mintority groups that we're not allowed to complain about.
Comment 170 of 226

Scott of Heathmont
It would be nice to see our Police Commisioner support our police force rather than bend over to political correctness (yet again).
Comment 224 of 226

Of course, I don't wish to pretend that all African young people in Melbourne are cherubs who would not hurt a fly. But for so many of the people commenting above, "African youths" form a single identity - the thug in hip-hop attire. So it does not occur to them that an African boy harassed by police might not have actually done anything - by being African, he is "one of those" who commit crimes.

Even if you assume that the report is only partly factual; it is a worrying indictment on those we put faith in to keep our streets safe. The simplistic either/or mentality being displayed by the above commenters reduces the argument to EITHER police are racist and Africans are innocent OR Africans are not innocent and therefore they are lying and police are not racist. There is no room for nuanced thought; the idea that there can be problems with youth crime in the African community AND problems with racism in the police force, which might actually be contributing to the causes of crime.

One of the complaints expressed by the young Africans interviewed in the study is that assumption that because they are African, they are being tarred with the same brush as the Africans who are involved in street gang activity, and are therefore presumed guilty. The attitudes expressed on the Herald-Sun website show exactly how this can happen; most of the commenters seem to find it inconceivable that there could possibly exist any African youth who are not criminals.



More like this...

What's with all the resentful white people reading the Herald-Sun?

"Send them all back" ... even if they are Australian?

Asian-fearing Herald-Sun readers of the week

Indian student stabbed to death; what does the public reaction say about us?

18 comments:

  1. Did the Sudanese and Somali have a "black identity" before coming to Australia? It may sound like a silly question to ask, but a "black identity" is certainly not universal, as I've had the opportunity to confirm here in Brazil.

    I'll post below some correspondence I had with an American friend who's interested in spending time in Brazil as well. I challenged her assumptions when she matter-of-factly spoke about "black Brazilians" and "black Brazilian culture". I responded:

    -----

    I honestly don't think there are any "black" people here in Brazil. This is because the concept of someone being "black", being a colour, is loaded with a whole lot of assumptions. You may be in fact surprised to hear me say that speaking in such terms is racist. This is because one is taking a physical characteristic and using that to define that person. That is, the whole of that person's complexity and individuality is reduced to a physical characteristic. It would be as if one were to call someone an elbow. Why? Because he has an elbow ... therefore he must be an elbow. But what does having an elbow have to do with that individuals characteristics -- his personality, his attitudes, character and dreams? He's an elbow, dammit! What, is he embarrassed of being an elbow?! He should be proud of the fact that he's an elbow! Elbow is Beautiful. Stand up and celebrate what makes you you! "Elbow and Proud!" is the slogan to live by!

    What about green-eyed people in America? How do they vote? What do they like to do in their spare time? What type of music is green-eyed music? What is green-eyed cuisine like? Do the people with other eye colours adopt (or appropriate) green-eyed food and other aspects of green-eyed culture? What neighbourhoods do green-eyed people live in? How do green-eyed people talk? How do they walk?

    [Continued...]

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  2. [...continued]

    You see, if I asked you whether there are people with green eyes in America, you would have to say yes. But then I could go and make a whole lot of inferences and assumptions like above, namely, that there must then be a population in America that defines itself based on its possession of green eyes, and builds around this physical characteristic a whole identity and sense of green-eyed consciousness. They may do this because this mindset has been imposed on them by those around them, by the general society, which treats those with green eyes as a "people" who are seperate and distinguishable from those with other eye colours. Therefore those with green eyes have no choice but to quite naturally think of themselves in such terms, as "green-eyed people", as an "ethnic group", as a "minority" and so forth.

    In Brazil, just because there are people with dark skin who are to some degree of African descent doesn't mean that there are "black" people in the sense Americans would understand the term. This is because, as with my fictitious green-eyed people example above, there is no "black community" here, there is no "black music", there are no "black neighbourhoods", there is no "black voting block", no "black" way of talking, walking, thinking and so forth. It is very difficult here in Rio to see more than four people together who are all "black" -- perhaps dark-skinned, sure, but certainly not uniformally, properly "black". Some Brazilian cultural influences may have a more African origin, sure, but this is Brazilian culture, not "black" culture, as speaking in such terms would be to make and impose an artificial, contrived distinction.

    So while there are people here with dark skin, there are no "black" people, just as the fact that there are people in green eyes in America doesn't mean that there's a green-eyed people in the US. To think such would be to infer incorrectly, taking the American experience and universalising it, when in reality this experience is not shared everywhere.

    -----

    [More to follow...]

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  3. [...continued]

    So were the Sudanese and Somali "black" before they came to Australia, or did they only assume this "identity", this "consciousness", upon landing on Australian shores?

    Given their very poor background, with little opportunity to interact with Western influences (such as with TV and popular music), I think it would have been unlikely that the Sudanese and Somali would have thought of themselves as "black", would have had a "black identity". They would have instead most likely identified themselves in terms of clan or tribe.

    But what happens when they arrive in Australia? The society tells them that they're "black". What does that mean? Well, where else to look for instruction on the matter than the country that has raised the importance of something they call "race" to a national obsession, placing it right up there with oxygen -- namely, the United States of America?

    Australia, being an English-speaking country, is bombarded by American cultural influence, and these young men of Sudanese and Somali extraction, now "conscious" of their "blackness", of their "racial identity", gravitate inexorably, like a moth to a flame, toward the cool-pose culture society unconsciously tells them is their culture. And then after (unconsciously) implanting this "black" identity in young men, the same society throws up its exasperated arms in the air at their behavior and despairs of their non-discriminatory immigration policy!

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  4. Ah, anticipating some possible complaints from some people who may say that there actually are "black" people in Brazil because there is an (ersatz) "black movement" there and a debate about instituting racial quotas, here is another part of a response I wrote to my American friend:

    -----

    Since there are no "black" people or "white" people here in Brazil, there is no "black" Brazilian culture or "white" Brazilian culture. There is simply Brazilian culture. Everybody -- and I mean everybody -- loves rice and feijao. The rich, the poor, the blonde-with-blue-eyes, the black-as-night -- everybody. It's a Brazilian dish, not an African dish. Sure, the influence may originally be African, but it's a Brazilian dish. Brazilian culture is made up of a number of influences, mainly African, European and Indian. It's a result of this confluence, of the resulting mixture. American culture has the same mixture, but nowhere near the same extent, since it is a society that divides itself on the basis of this thing they call "race". America is a state with many nations within it -- the "black" nation, the Hispanic nation, the "white" nation, the Native American nation, etc. Brazil is a nation-state with the one unified homogenous nation within it: the Brazilian nation. That's why it doesn't make sense to talk of a "black" community or a "white" community or an "Indian" community or whatever. Those "black" groups that exist here are funded by the Ford Foundation and wouldn't be able to survive for a few seconds without such funding from overseas.

    -----

    Following is a link (if you can understand Portuguese) to a group of intellectuals and concerned citizens resisting the racialization of Brazil:

    http://noracebr.blogspot.com/

    The following site has an English section:

    http://nacaomestica.org/blog4/?cat=4

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  5. @ Peter: my guess is that the "black" identity is quite happily adopted by young Africans in Australia, whereas their parents' generation do not necessarily identify it.

    The appeal of this identity that draws from African-American culture is that it carries the idea of black people being cooler than white people, which is why it is adopted to various degrees by not just Africans, but some Pacific Islanders, South Asians and Latin Americans as well.

    You have to understand that in a country such as Australia in which mainsream culture and entertainment is largely white, darker people often feel marginalised. Thus the lure of an imported culture which places non-whites at the forefront instead.

    Regarding Brazil, I am in no position to debunk what you say, but it does somewhat fly in the face of certain things I have read elsewhere. I am sure that given the more complicated demographics of Brazil that racial division is far less rigid than say the USA. But I have come across a number of different things which suggest the picture you present is only one side of the story.

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  6. Curious to see whether Bolt will remove this comment by "eddie", since he claims to condemn racism:


    "On the African continent the average African IQ varies between 70-78, depending which country. The average IQ in China is 105. With such low average IQ it shouldnt come as any shock that Africa is a failed continent. Bringing tens of thousands of Africans to Australia is asking for trouble.

    Fri 19 Mar 10 (12:52am)"

    http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt/index.php/heraldsun/comments/column_our_too_secret_police/

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  7. @ Anonymous: of course he won't. Bolt primarily condemns racism against white people.

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  8. "@ Anonymous: of course he won't. Bolt primarily condemns racism against white people."

    Funny how this isnt happening in some obscure part of the internet as it has to in other countries but right out in the open in the mainstream media! In civilized societies racism is shunned and condemned not given a free pass in the leading media.

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  9. ^ Not that surprising, really. There is money to be made by telling a mainstream (mostly white) audience what they want to hear - that the "others" are the source of all our problems.

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  10. Seems like Andrew's removed the above-linked racist comment, though I doubt because he finds it unacceptable or offensive himself. He hasn't, howerver, SNIPPED it. He's taken it completely off, including the comments that responded to it, as if it never existed in the first place. This is why I need to learn how to do that screen-grab thing, so that evidence doesn't "disappear" like this.

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  11. Reading your post reminds me of when people ask why black americans never travel outside the US, its because we do not want to be treated like the Africans in Australia, France, and England and other places...at least in America we know most of the race problems (even though it is getting worse) but we don't know what to expect with other countries.

    Its frightening how accepting whites are of racism these days...I am scared of a return to Jim Crow.

    I can't help but wonder if its worth working hard when people are just going to stereotype me and never give me a chance.

    I am all for getting rid of hip hop and cracking down on gangs...and do believe all black communities in every country need to somehow fix the rampant problems...but that leads me to one question...even if the problems are fixed, will that ever be enough?

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  12. @ lifeexplorerdiscovery:

    You said "I can't help but wonder if its worth working hard when people are just going to stereotype me and never give me a chance."

    I imagine that to be a really common question that black Americans ponder, and perhaps too many allow it to hold them back.

    Realistically, racism will always be around to some degree. But I don't think it's unfair to say that if the black community was able to clean up its many social problems, you would see a lot less racism.

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  13. "...but that leads me to one question...even if the problems are fixed, will that ever be enough?"

    Australia and New Zealand have a strong assimilationist tradition. The people have always had a strong preference for assimilation over segregation -- which is in direct contrasts to countries like the US and South Africa. In fact, such is this the case that it is "assimilation", and not "segregation", that is the dirty, "racist" word in the Antipodes! Yeah, go figure! So if the new immigrants -- in this case "Africans" -- were to focus on assimilating and becoming "Australians" rather than working hard, in their blundering attempts, to emulate what they understand of the cool-pose culture (obviously I'm only speaking of the young males here, who are the ones dragged by the siren song of cool-pose culture), then the rising community angst we are seeing would not exist. Obviously there's the initial anxiety that will inevitably exist when such an obscure and unknown group like the Sudanese start to arrive in noticeable numbers. But there was the recent story of that young Sudanese who got drafted into the Kangaroos AFL team. He was so ocker -- so assimilated -- that you can rest assured that the sight of him warmed the hearts of many of the people who show concern in comments on the Herald Sun. Heck, even Andrew Bolt seemed to relax a bit and view this young man positively.

    The problem with Bolt is that he's so STUPID that he thinks that by inciting ocker Australians to a fever pitch, that they will inevitably be impelled to start attacking "Africans" indiscriminately, whether they subscribe to cool-pose culture or not (ocker Australians can't be expected to make such fine distinctions) -- he thinks, in his imbecility, that this will somehow do some good! God help us!

    I'll start writing an essay about what I think is the best way to insure society-calming assimilation and post the link here, Eurasian, if you don't mind, and then spread the word! Then let's see if we can avoid Bolt making a real mess of things and inciting running street battles between "Australians" and these wannabe Snoop Dogg/50 Cent groupies.

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  14. "The appeal of this identity that draws from African-American culture is that it carries the idea of black people being cooler than white people, which is why it is adopted to various degrees by not just Africans, but some Pacific Islanders, South Asians and Latin Americans as well."

    I remember watching, a number of years ago, the BBC documentary "Dancing in the Street: A History of Rock and Roll". When the documentary series examined the creation and rise of rap music, the early creators of this musical form being interviewed spoke about how they were going to, with rap, keep it for themselves and not allow it to be "stolen" and appropriated by the "whites", as apparently had occured with rock 'n' roll and jazz. Such is the racial division of the United States.

    So ever since the beginning of rap and hip-hop, a concerted effort has been made by "blacks" or so-called "African-Americans" to make this musical form the sole property of "black" people and largely deny "white" people from participating -- which is why Eminem was such a big deal. American society VERY STRONGLY AND FIRMLY believes in the concept and legitimacy of the idea of race, that human beings are divided into "races" and so forth, and this mindset has manifested itself in the rap/hip-hop musical form, which has virtually become inextricably linked with the racialist idea of "blackness" and what it apparently means to be "black".

    The apparent gang war would therefore appear to be a conceptual turf war between parties contending over the intellectual property rights of "black" identity, over who is entitled to open and run the local franchise of the "universal black identity" chain in Australia. Earlier the pacific islanders and such (effectively anyone with a bit of melanin in their skin) had staked their claim to being the local representatives of the putative "universal black identity". But now come the Sudanese who assert that they have a truer, more authentic claim to this identity because, though not having an identical appearance to the "African-Americans" they seek to emulate, have an appearance that more closely approximates the target American population than the pacific islanders, who are not even negroid (I'm not sure whether the Sudanese can technically be classified as negroid either if you want to employ racial taxonomy).

    [more to follow...]

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  15. [...continued]

    And, yes, it is because this US-conceived idea of "black identity" is so cool, so appealing in many respects, that there is now this conceptual turf war between "blacks" for the right "represent" under the southern cross. US popular culture is disproportionately formed by those of African descent in the US and the whole world has eagerly lapped up its cool creations -- jazz, rock 'n' roll, slang, etc. "African-Americans" are one of the major arbiters of the aesthetic of cool and are understandably respected for this.

    Unfortunately, a condition has been attached to the rap/hip-hop musical form by these "African-Americans", namely, "You can look, but you can't touch!" Only fellow "blacks" can touch. This, unfortunately, is the problem with Americans: they are racist and think and act in a racist, segregationist, divisive way, even if they no longer have legally enforced segregation and lynchings.

    So with no competition for the "black identity title", pacific islanders (and I think Lebanese, with their interpretation or modification of this "identity") have staked claim to this sought-after cool-pose culture -- non-whites knowing to keep warily away in deference to the prominent "non-blacks will be prosecuted" signs around the private property of cool-pose culture.

    But now with the market liberalisation seen in the arrival of "Africans", there is an elbowing and jostling for market share, chasing the rights to the much vaunted and much sought after cool-pose culture.

    And ockers, at a loss to understand what's going on, resolve that the contest of violence is intrinsic to "African culture" (something monolithic despite the thousands of disparate languages and cultures in that geographical designation) and, hey, may be innate, as Bolt seems to intimate. Therefore, the non-discriminatory immigration policy must be shed for a "whites-" only immigration policy, or at least one excluding "Africans" (except the "white" variety escaping majority rule in South Africa and relocating to Perth, welcomed with open arms by the Boltites).

    American racial problems are not universal. But they can be made universal.

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  16. Wonder if Afrikaner Bolt will make any mention of this violence carried out by ocker Australians? I doubt it.

    http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/revheads-riot-trash-bob-jane-store-20100320-qmj8.html

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  17. @ Peter:

    "The apparent gang war would therefore appear to be a conceptual turf war between parties contending over the intellectual property rights of "black" identity"

    Intriguing theory. Although knowing the kind of guy who is in one of these street gangs in Melbourne, I think it is likely to be far more simple. As in, someone said something about someone's mother or looked at someone the wrong way. Or just a desire to be the baddest and toughest.

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  18. "Intriguing theory. Although knowing the kind of guy who is in one of these street gangs in Melbourne, I think it is likely to be far more simple. As in, someone said something about someone's mother or looked at someone the wrong way. Or just a desire to be the baddest and toughest."

    I believe the desire to be the "baddest and the toughest" is precisely driven by the desire to establish one's bona fides to the claim of being the most legitimate representative of the cool-pose culture. After all, gangbangers are by definition not people who place a premium on diplomacy and conciliation in settling disagreements and disputes. No, dey bad-ass mother----s who gonna cap yo madda----ng ass, byaaach! In other words, their very identity, their very cool-pose culture, requires that they act excessively to whatever perceived slight; otherwise they're not who they claim to be, namely niggas wit' attitude. And the fact that the market chasing this identity is crowded -- Maori, Samoans, "Africans", Lebs, etc. -- means that there must be severe mark downs in restraint and civility in order to chase the bad-ass market, in order to win the coveted status of official facsimili of the Crips/Bloods in Australia.

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