Indigenous inequality in spotlight as Australia faces reckoning on race

Campaigners frustrated that it took an African American man’s death to bring their own plight into focus

Australia’s prime minister took his time before weighing in on the country’s Black Lives Matter movement. Five days after tens of thousands of people joined protests over Indigenous deaths in custody, Scott Morrison spoke out on Thursday, wondering aloud on a right-leaning radio station whether something that had started with a “fair point” had lost its way.

“I think we’ve also got to respect our history as well,” he said. “And this is not a licence for people to just go nuts on this stuff.”

As Black Lives Matter protests have swept around the world after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander campaigners have sought to seize the moment. Pointing to figures showing 437 Indigenous people have died in custody since1991, they argue it is time for Australia’s own national reckoning.

Successive governments have failed to move the dial on Indigenous inequality, despite an apology in 2008 to the stolen generations – Indigenous people who were forcibly removed from their families as children by the state – from the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd. Indigenous Australians account for 28% of people in prison. Life expectancy is 10 years less than that of the general population. Decades of calling for recognition in the constitution have gone unanswered.

Now that racism is in the headlines, there has been a greater focus on Indigenous Australians, although campaigners have expressed frustration that it took the death of an African American man to shine a light on their plight.

The anger has coalesced around high-profile deaths in custody. Public rallies have become vigils to those lives lost: people such as David Dungay, whose last words were “I can’t breathe” as he was restrained by prison guards in 2015; Tanya Day, who died from a fall in prison in 2017 following an arrest for public drunkenness; and Ms Dhu, who was denied medical care by police who arrested her over unpaid fines and died in custody in 2014.

In the week before protesters took to the streets, a Sydney police officer slammed an Indigenous teenager’s face into concrete.

A man places a candle at a vigil with a portrait of David Dungay during a protest in Sydney
A man places a candle at a vigil with a portrait of David Dungay during a protest in Sydney. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Morrison’s conservative government has done little to directly address the frustrations of campaigners who say recommendations from a 1991 royal commission into Indigenous deaths in custody still have not been implemented.

The prime minister said he viewed the “very high level of Indigenous incarceration” as a genuine issue. Yet he dismissed the broader argument from campaigners that Australia should not see itself as absent of the kind of racism present in the US.

“Australia, in this global moment of Black Lives Matter, is revealing itself as the colonial outpost that it is,” said Dr Chelsea Bond, a Munanjali and South Sea Islander academic at the University of Queensland. She questioned how it was that Morrison could say in the radio interview that there was “no slavery in Australia”.

Morrison later acknowledged he had been wrong. From the “blackbirding” of Pacific Islander people who were were kidnapped and forced into labouring work, to the Indigenous farmhands and domestic servants who were traded between settlers and not paid, there certainly was slavery in Australia. But in his apology, Morrison said he did not want to start a “history war”.

“Appealing for truth-telling in history is not a matter of feelings,” Bond said. “It’s deeply irresponsible for our prime minister to be trying to incite a history war based on lies. It strikes me that he wouldn’t want to use this moment to honour the pain and trauma Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have experienced in this country. Why wouldn’t you want to do that?”

The Labor opposition has sought to elevate the case for a “voice to parliament”, a constitutionally enshrined representative body to advise politicians on Indigenous policy. This has been rejected by the government.

A banner at a protest in Melbourne
A banner at a protest in Melbourne. Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Labor has walked a fine line in declining to directly criticise people taking to the streets in defiance of rules on physical distancing, while arguing that everyone should follow the authorities’ health advice. The advice, unequivocally, is that protests should not go ahead.

“My point is that for people to think carefully about what they decide to do,” said Linda Burney, Labor’s most senior Indigenous MP. “It is not up to me or anyone else to tell people what to do, but to heed the health warnings and to think about what the issues are here. And that’s what I would like the media to also focus on: it’s not ‘do you or don’t you’. It’s actually thinking about deeply what the issues are.”

Morrison appeared somewhat chastened as he was taken to task about his claims that there was no slavery in Australia. “I acknowledge there have been all sorts of hideous practices that have taken place. And so I’m not denying any of that. OK. I’m not denying any of that. And I don’t think it’s helpful to go into an endless history wars discussion about this.”

Protesters have indicated they intend to hold more rallies at the weekend. Many argue that while they acknowledge the health risks from the pandemic, racism poses its own risks to Australia’s First Nations people. A popular placard at last weekend’s rallies read “Racism is a pandemic”.

Bond said it was a painful moment. “We’re hearing that black lives matter, but what black people are being reminded of is how little they’ve mattered,” she said. “People are hurting because it’s taking them back to the first time they noticed that race was real and was violence. We are reliving all of our experiences of racial violence in this moment. In the hope that it could lead to some change, not just a hashtag trending.”

Contributor

Luke Henriques-Gomes in Melbourne

The GuardianTramp

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