December 16, 2003 | Peter

Is Howard racist?

John Howard has copped some flack over his hardline stand over Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth, including claims emanating from parts African of racism. Considering that two of Howard’s most controversial stances involve race (Aboriginals and refugees), is he open to such accusations?
Racism is an easy thing to assert, and we see it being used to quash criticism a fair bit. In fact, it is hard to even figure out what racism is, given that technically we don’t know what ‘race’ is. Most people would assume it has something to do with skin colour, but beyond this it is a very nebulous concept. Often what people think is about race is actually about culture. While racism seems intrinsically unfair – because a person can hardly change their colour (except for Michael Jackson) – culture is created and can be changed and is thus open to criticism.
I don’t think John Howard is a racist in any meaningful way, but I do think he has a problem valuing non-western cultures. Due to a combination of an almost complete acceptance of conservative, white Australian culture and a certain narrowness of mind, Howard just seems incapable of understanding that some people might reasonably live differently. Due to this narrowness of experience and vision, he just doesn’t get why indigenous people are so unhappy about being dispossessed of their land or taken from their relatives. Or that Afghani refugees might really love their children. Or that land reform in Zimbabwe is seen by many blacks as central to its future.
Up till now Howard has got away with this xenophobia because it resonates with the old demon of Australian history, racism, defined simply in colour terms. Many white Australians came to fear and then feel guilty about their abuse of Aboriginals, and racism as a defence against black and yellow labour was built into the new national industrial fabric. So the ongoing ignorance of the plight of Aboriginal Australians and the hostility to (often brown skinned) refugees has a strong historical basis.
But such attitudes do not seem as strong in younger generations, and I don’t see that any of the new crop of political leaders on either side have this reflexive attitude. As with the monarchy issue, sometimes John Howard just seems very old.

Posted by Peter at 2:45 am | Comments Off on Is Howard racist? |
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