Practical Racism

Is history really about psychological profiling?

According to John Quiggin "There is only one real instance of political correctness in Australia today and
that is that you are never, ever allowed to call anyone a racist."

Why is this?

For many people racism is a kind of psychopathology. To be a racist is to have morally objectionable personality traits. Racists need to believe that their racial group is superior to others. They need to believe that their group has a right to dominate inferior groups. People tend to think of racism in the same way as they think of pedophilia – racists can be restrained but they can never be rehabilitated. Racists are sick, deformed human beings.

On this view to call someone a racist is stigmatizing. It is to reveal the core of their being and declare it morally unacceptable. If this is how people think about racism it’s no wonder they’re nervous about using the word.

But perhaps a more useful way to think about racism is to apply it to what people and institutions do rather than to their personalities or mental states. On this view, a racist act or policy is one which has the foreseeable result of disadvantaging a particular racial or cultural group. We could call this kind of racism, ‘practical racism.’

Quiggin’s post was provoked by a Sydney Morning Herald piece on Keith Windschuttle’s latest book – The White Australia Policy. As readers would know, the White Australia policy restricted non-white immigration to Australia by requiring immigrants to pass a dictation test in a European language.

The Windschuttle debate is firmly focused on the beliefs and intentions of the policy’s creators. According to Herald journalist Deborah Snow:

Windschuttle’s thesis is that until the 1950s Australian historians held a much more benign view of the purposes and origins of the policy than they do today. They saw it as an attempt by politicians to preserve social harmony, and by a fledgling trade union movement to keep cheap labour out of the country. Windschuttle concedes there were some politicians and intellectuals, among them Henry Lawson and a clique at the Bulletin, who took an anti-immigration stance based overtly on a belief in the biological inferiority of some races. But he maintains this was a minority view.

It’s hard enough to get into to a person’s head when they’re alive. When they’ve been dead for decades it’s next to impossible. So instead of having an sensible argument about the merits of the policy we end up with an intractable argument about the moral worthiness of the nation’s founders. Historians and journalists like Windschuttle dig around what written traces remain of the founders’ thoughts and actions and try to piece together a psychological profile. It’s fascinating stuff – but is it history?

What we never seem to argue about is whether the White Australia policy was racist in practical terms. Perhaps the reason for this is that nobody can deny that the policy systematically disadvantaged some groups of people. If you were Chinese then you wouldn’t be allowed in.

Rather than arguing with people about the contents of their own heads perhaps it would be a better idea to argue about the effects of the policies they support.

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Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

I’m not too sure of your point Don. Its pretty obvious that the effect of the White Australia policy was ‘practical racism’. It wasn’t he nicest thing to do to those who didn’t pass the test. So it didn’t do them any good. That seems pretty clear, so where does that take us?

As for not knowing what’s going on in people’s head, what was going on in people’s head is what a lot of the best history is about. It is fun, worthwhile and often possible to trace what was in people’s heads. People have a habit of expressing what’s in their head – in Parliament, in papers of the time – that’s why Windshuttle, can say (correctly) that Henry Lawson was a racist in the worst sense of that term – or a pretty bad sense of the term – and be right about it. Sometimes they try to mislead others as to their motives, but trying to work out what motives lie behind the justifications is one of the mainstays of (a lot of) good history.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

I don’t think this argument holds much water. Racism implies the recognition of differences between races, and the idea that one group is superior to another.

This practical racism idea you’re proposing says that racism exists where outcomes are different between groups.

What you’re saying is that racism no longer requires an element of belief. One can be a racist whenever the results of one’s actions change the balance of racial relations. Apart from being a profoundly zero-sum view, it looks awfully like some species of consequentialism. Instead of proposing some mythical cardinal scale you’ve substituted an ordinal one in which “racist” is a category.

Like most other consequential analysis it suffers from the usual brace of problems.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is, inventing new kinds of racism in order to apply the label more liberally is silly. There are regular racists out there, but not every policy you dislike is motivated by racism.

John
John
2022 years ago

Jacques, I think it’s safe to say that a policy called, by its proponents, “The White Australia Policy” was racist. And while people can support all sorts of policies for all sorts of reasons, the arguments actually used to support the White Australia policy were racist in precisely the sense defined in your para 1.

Jason Soon
2022 years ago

Jacques
I can get where Don is coming from though I think his formulation designed to capture racism by policies with disproportionate impacts is a bit too broad. When I read Henry Reynolds’ North of Capricorn which is about the effects of the WAP on the developing multiracial, thriving, trading creole culture that the best of capitalism brings out, my first emotion was *anger*. It made me angry at the lost opportunities, the shattered lives, the loss of autonomy, the ruined businesses that this policy promoted – I could care less whether the WAP was caused by a biological theory or economic protectionism.

blank
blank
2022 years ago

“As readers would know, the White Australia policy restricted non-white immigration to Australia by requiring immigrants to pass a dictation test in a European language.”

This is not wholly correct.
The original Act said ‘european language’, but was changed to ‘any prescribed language’.

The dictation test was also used to exclude whites that the government of the day did not like.

The case of Egon Kisch, a Czech communist, who was given a diction test in Scottish Gaelic, is one example.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Precisely, Jason. I don’t know that Windschuttle is really trying to set the historical record straight – he’s trying to intervene in contemporary politics via this latest entry in the “culture wars”. Which is ironic given his professed concern that history academics have a political rather than a scholarly take on history…

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

In answer to Nicholas, I don’t think Don meant to say that motives are unimportant in explaining history. It was that racist, like good or evil, implies a sweeping negative judgement about a person’s fundamental character. In the context of current policy debates, it’s better to avoid this because it closes off communication. In the context of historical analysis, applied to times when values were very different from ours, passing sweeping negative judgements is generally pointless. Except in the case of outstanding monsters, one can always say, well, they didn’t know any better. At least, when future generations, raised on Singerian principles, rightly condemn Don and his disciples for eating hamburgers, I hope the historians will say this.

Given that such condemnations are pointless, defending the politicians and bureaucrats of 100 years ago against them is equally pointless. You would only do it – out of the blue – if you had an agenda. But hold on…surely that couldn’t be true of Windschuttle!

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

James, it’s odd indeed that Windschuttle has an agenda since he’s such a champion of truth and objectivity.

Nevertheless, from the article in the SMH:

‘”My broad agenda is to criticise my own generation, people who were educated in the ’60s and took on board a whole range of ideas which I think are socially damaging, of which one is multiculturalism, not soft (integrationist) multiculturalism, but hard multiculturalism, and the idea that Australia is a shockingly racist country comparable to South African apartheid,” he told the Herald.

“It’s mad because the truth is so far beyond that. They’re damaging Australians’ sense of themselves, they’re not doing young people any good, they’re harming Aboriginal people because they are telling Aborigines that white Australians have always hated and despised them, which is untrue.”‘

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Mark, nobody engages in public debate without some form of agenda. Windschuttle didn’t describe himself as a champion of truth and objectivity, you did. He states that his agenda is to “criticise [his] own generation, people who were educated in the ’60s and took on board a whole range of ideas which [he] think[s] are socially damaging”. In the process, he has indeed pointed out to a number of instances where people promoting the ideas he thinks are socially damaging have made errors, but that was part of the process, not the whole game.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Alex, Windschuttle is very well known for his claims over a period of years that he is trying to bring objectivity, truth and scholarship back to historical writing and that historians with whom he disagrees are motivated more by a political agenda than by these concerns.

Alan
Alan
2022 years ago

John Howard says to John Laws and his audience:
“I sympathise fundamentally with those Australians who are insulted when told we have a racist and bigoted past”.

Does it matter whether the PM is racist, pandering to racists, pandering to panderers to racists or any combination of the above?

If the concept of ‘practical racism’ gives a “NO” answer, that’s good as far as it goes. But in the above example, assuming the PM knows the consequences of his words, how can you make any meaningful distinction between ‘practical racism’ and racism pure and simple?

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Mark, yes I was aware of Windschuttle’s past. Suffice it to say that he disapproves of both the methods and the agenda of others of his generation (as he sees them). But is his main concern their methods (ie a passion for truth and objectivity) or their agenda (ie wishing to correct what he sees as a damaging social agenda). I contend it is the latter.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Well, maybe so, Alex, but it’s disingenuous of him to write as if he has no agenda aside from objectivity. I guess I should give him some credit for foregrounding his agenda for the first time.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Yes, Mark, you have a point that he has been less forthright about his agenda in the past. I’d argue, though, that it was implicit in what he wrote.

Robert
2022 years ago

Alex, when Windschuttle first began his crusade against his political enemies, he said:The responsibility of the historian is … to stand above current political squabbles and aims and objectives and to try and get at the truth.

What the historians of Aboriginal Australia have done is they’ve taken sides in disputes.

They’ve supported one faction over another.So much for that, hey?

Robert
2022 years ago

(Sorry, the html screwed up.)

Alex, when Windschuttle first began his crusade against his political enemies, he said:

The responsibility of the historian is … to stand above current political squabbles and aims and objectives and to try and get at the truth.

What the historians of Aboriginal Australia have done is they’ve taken sides in disputes.

They’ve supported one faction over another.

So much for that, hey?

Robert
2022 years ago

Bah. Everything from “The responsibility” to “over another.” is from Windschuttle on Lateline.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Yes, but was this the weapon or the objective?

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

John and Jason;

I’m somewhat familiar with the White Australia Policy (my mother took the dictation test), and the overtly racist thinking underlying aspects of the Federation project.

My point still stands. The WAP was racist because it was intended to be. It was engineered to deny entry to certain groups of people. The “practical racism” in this case proceeded directly from racist belief.

But it’s another thing entirely, for instance, to call a policy racist simply because its effect falls disproportionately on different groups. This is imputing racist intention to the authors of those laws or programs.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Sorry, I think there is racism and disgusting racism.

Racism is when you jail and deport Muslims from Australia – particularly after demonising them – but don’t hunt down White illegal immigrants who came as tourists.

Disgusting racism is when the harm you do gives you pleasure.

I haven’t got a better language because we need to be able to acknowledge ordinary racism as it occurs in our lives. In the way I look at people on the tram and see stereotypes and not individuals, in the way I assume a Black man on the street might be going to beg, in the way I am happier if I get an Anglo taxi driver.

I am conscious of the possibility and I act to stop it when these nasty tendrils rise up in my mind. I listen when someone suggests my viewpoint is racist, because it might be true. It is a demon of the unconscious.

You can see how hard it is to talk this through. Ruddock will never admit that he is a racist and he defends himself vigorously against the charge.

Disgusting racism is so terrible that the fear of it, or the anger about it, infects our attempts to talk about the racism of the everyday.

The most damage, in ordinary times, may be caused by commonplace racism.

mark
2022 years ago

Alex, I’m not sure what your point is here.

Windschuttle is not the “champion of truth and objectivity”, he’s just an ordinary guy who’s out to champion truth and objectivity because those evil black-armband historians have tried to hide it. And he has lied publicly about his real agenda, instead presenting himself as an advocate for truth and objectivity in reporting history, even though we and you acknowledge he isn’t.

It seems to me you agree with Mark’s characterisation of Windschuttle, but object to it nonetheless. Could you please clarify for this poor pleb?

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Well put, David.

Red Peter
Red Peter
2022 years ago

I think Don makes a salient point. It’s pretty well accepted that human beings have an innate capacity for, and even a tendency towards, racial discrimination. But since “racism”

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

mark, re your confusion as to my position on Windschuttle. I have found Helen Irving’s comments in the SMH collection of articles, “Footnotes to a War” helpful in understanding what I think is going on (link at the bottom of this post).

To quote Helen, “Whose perspective, then, should be conveyed? This is the first of the real battles in the “history wars”. Should readers know how it felt to be an Aborigine going about daily life, only to see their world turned upside down by British settlers? Or should we understand the officials who made the decisions about settlement? Or the convicts, or the wives? Should the historian base their choice on a scale of sympathy for the subjects of history?

“We should try to understand all, and condemn none. The historian’s proper role is to step into the shoes of the past, to explain what people thought they were doing. Historians should approach their material with an open mind. They should not start by asking: what would I have done? It is absurd to chastise the past for failing to live up to our standards. The historian’s function, as Carr concluded, “is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present”.”

I see Windschuttle as providing a helpful corrective to those who are obsessed with “chastising the past for failing to live up to our standards” . That seems to me to be his central aim. In the process, he has found that some historians have sometimes failed to apply proper standards of care in their work, and has properly taken them to task over this. I agree that he has in the past overemphasised this aspect of his work, partly because he himself is probably not very clear about the distinction between means and ends.

Link to SMH articles

http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/12/15/1071336875054.html

ronpeters
ronpeters
2022 years ago

Most of you are going down the correct road. You are bringing into play the link (perceived) between culture/ideology and race.
I think these days the idea of a true racist is absurd. The science is there. Only a very uneducated person would agree that race is/or should be, a major factor in determining a person’s status as a worthy human – let alone a person’s suitability for Australian citizenship. The perception that, among other things, a person’s culture, beliefs and even character can be defined by their skin colour still prevails – even though the logic is wrong.
In short today’s “racists” are really cultural supremacists. We all think our chosen religion, political beliefs, ideology, way of life is the best, but, unlike colour, they can be kept private. We all think that our community has found the best way of living (Just as we once thought that our given skin colour made us the best humans). Today, because of Australia’s racist history, skin colour often suggests dissent -so is it the demarcation of pigmentation or the political dissent that irritates the various commentators and John Howard’s mob.
This is where the “innate” discrimination can really stem from – it can stem from the tension we feel from the idea that someone else may have found a better way of life. It stems from a lack of confidence in our own beliefs and, of course, a fear of the other. But most importantly it comes from the possibility that we are responsible through our alignment with the dominant community and its way of life for the suffering of the other; for the dissent of the other which may offend our sense of justice.
I also think that the media, and those of you interested in the race debate, shy away from confronting the idea of cultural supremacism because it may mean that we have to confront our culture which sees itself as the best. Uberalles the others. Don’t get me wrong I think all cultures need to open up to change – circumcision, treatment of women by some cultures, some indigenous law and ceremonies, some Christian beliefs etc are harmful and need scraping. Nevertheless, we need to ask are we the new “racists”? As cultural supremacists, are we, and more precisely our rulers, just as bigoted and ill-informed as our forefathers that Windshuttle addresses? Are our leaders the creators of dissent and its offshoot “racial” hatred?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

what was it paul keating said? ‘practical reconciliation was a linguistic phenomenon where the adjective negated the noun’?

something like that – I’m sure pjk put it better…

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

What was it Paul Keating said? ‘practical reconciliation was a linguistic phenomenon where the adjective negated the noun’?

something like that – I’m sure PJK put it better…

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

oops, must remember difference between preview and post buttons! sorry, folks!