A few bad apples or rotten to the core?

9 September 2021 | Posted In: #140 Spring 2021,

Seemingly, all of a sudden, Australia’s conservatives are more than a little stirred up by critical race theory — so what is it? Luke Pearson and Nat Cromb explain.

Chris Kenny, senior advisory group member to the government’s Indigenous Voice committee, linked critical race theory (CRT) to a “worldwide movement to view all white people as privileged and innately racist, and to see everything through the prism of identity politics”. CRT isn’t a worldwide movement to view all white people as privileged and innately racist, and to see everything through the prism of identity politics.

Warren Mundine, former host of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy-funded Sky News show Mundine Means Business, has called CRT the “most racist theory” he has read “in the last 30 years”, (which is weird given critical race theory is more than 40 years old, but maybe he read something even more racist 30 years ago, in 1991. That was the year the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody report was handed down after all, so maybe he means that?).

CRT isn’t the most racist theory of the past 30 years.

Pauline Hanson, runner up on season one of Dancing with the Stars, who thinks she is Indigenous because she was born here implying that she also thinks cows and cane toads are native animals in Australia, recently tried to pass a motion in the Senate banning critical race theory from the national curriculum.

CRT isn’t in the national curriculum.

So what is CRT?
Depending on who you listen to, CRT is an academic theory built around the assumption that racism is not just an issue of individual biases and prejudices but is something that has been embedded throughout society and its institutions, or it’s some sort of pagan witchcraft that will turn your children into gay communists if they get too close to it, unless they already are gay communists and then I assume it will turn them into some sort of . . . politically correct, halal-latte sipping, sharia law-loving vegan socialist — who is also a gay communist.

So, what is it? Where does it come from? And why are Australian conservatives currently building a moat filled with Holy Water around the Legion of Sky News lair to protect themselves from it? There are any number of explainers of what CRT is, written by cleverer than us academic types, and you should definitely go and read those, but ultimately the current ‘debate’ in Australia boils down to this: is racism an individual or a team sport? Is racism an issue of racist individuals i.e. just a ‘few bad apples’? Or is racism a systemic issue; you know, seeing how ‘one bad apple can spoil the bunch’, and Western society did spend the last several centuries being run exclusively by and for bad apples?

On the one hand you have people pointing out that white people spent over 500 years creating and justifying racism within all of its major institutions: religion, science, academia, politics, media etc influencing the beliefs and attitudes of white people, and then they used that public support to cement these justifications in laws, policies and practices ranging from dispossession, slavery, murder and massacre, false imprisonment, segregation, population control, access to employment, housing, education and almost any other aspect of life and death that you can possibly imagine.

And even though many of these overtly racist laws have been removed or modified, many of these racist practices, attitudes and beliefs continue to be enforced through these same institutions, which are still disproportionately run by the same white people, and this contributes to higher incarceration rates, under representation in positions of authority, unequal access to medical care, lower expectations within education, and other well-documented discriminatory outcomes in social indicators.

On the other hand you have Pauline Hanson, who thinks CRT is racist but Australia isn’t (except for rising anti-white racism). She has previously argued that “we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate” and that “Islam is a disease. We need to vaccinate ourselves against that,” which is weird because in reference to an actual vaccine, she said, “you have no right to say that I have to have this vaccination, because I tell you what, I won’t be having it”.

So, as you can see, some very fine people and some really great points being made on both sides.

Okay, but why does it matter?
If racism is a systemic issue then we need systemic solutions e.g. burn it down and start again. If racism is an individual matter then we don’t need to do anything about systemic racism because it doesn’t exist. No one in the past 50 years has done more for the argument that Australia is not a racist country or for making Australia more racist than former prime minister John Howard, who ensured that Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act never grew teeth by fighting against the push for it to have criminal sanctions.

He also suspended the Racial Discrimination Act on three separate occasions between 1997 and 2007 to pass racially discriminatory laws. He infamously changed the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Australia to Harmony Day — because we don’t have racial discrimination here, so we get to celebrate racial harmony instead.

Howard is the archetype in Australia not just for the rejection of CRT, but the rejection of the existence of systemic racism in its entirety. “I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country. I have always taken a more optimistic view of the character of the Australian people. I do not believe Australians are racist.” This is what he said in response to the Cronulla Riots, which a court found broadcaster Alan Jones contributed to when he racially vilified Lebanese Muslims on air by describing them as “vermin” who “rape and pillage a nation that’s taken them in”.

Alan Jones also opposes CRT and, according to Sky News, “says Australia needs a leader like Donald Trump who has a willingness to take on the education system after the former president targeted American schools for allegedly teaching critical race theory”. We don’t and, again, CRT isn’t in the Australian national curriculum.

You don’t have to be a white supremacist to oppose CRT, but it helps!
CRT started in America in the 1970s in an attempt to understand why, even after the hard-won victories of the civil rights era, the US legal system still continued to uphold and maintain racially discriminatory practices. Since then it has expanded beyond the legal system to look at society as a whole and all of its institutions rather than just the law, and it has also been applied outside of just the United States.

CRT had five main tenets, the main of which is the belief that racism is ordinary and not an anomaly. This counters the post-civil rights-era view that ‘racists’ are extreme people on the fringes, and most ‘hard-working everyday people’ (e.g. white people) are opposed to racism in all its forms. And to be fair, it’s a bit of a reach to think that white supremacist countries like America and Australia went from ‘no blacks allowed’ to ‘no racism allowed’ overnight.

And herein lies the rub, because if you find yourself arguing that white supremacy did a complete 180 (maybe even going too far in favour of non-white people!) then you invariably find yourself arguing that over-representation in prisons and early graves and under-representation in halls of power is the natural result of living in a meritocracy. That is to say, you are arguing that when all things are equal, as you believe that they are, white people naturally rise to the top through their intellect and hard work alone . . . and that sounds more than a little bit white supremacisty.

Warren Mundine has argued that CRT is “the eugenics of our time” because it argues that Black people are disadvantaged purely because of the colour of their skin. CRT is not eugenics. One of the tenets of CRT is that race is not a biological truth but is instead a social construct. This means that disadvantage faced by black people is due to racial discrimination not any biological reality of being black.

So while society is structured to discriminate against Black people, these structures can and should be identified, challenged and removed. This further means that Mundine either hasn’t actually read the theories about CRT, has read them but doesn’t understand them, or he does understand it but is saying it anyway for some other unknown reason?

In this way, pretending that racism no longer exists (except against white people) and that race doesn’t play a factor in social indicators, allows you to say that ‘All Lives Matter’ is anti-racist when really it is perpetuating a status quo where White lives matter more than Black lives. It allows you to argue that Black Lives Matter is racist when really it is designed to highlight systemic racism. In other words, you get to keep all of the racist attitudes without having to admit that you are racist.

CRT is seen as a threat to the status quo because it challenges the myth of the meritocracy, the dogma that while racism may have been a thing in the past — emphasis on ‘may’ — it certainly isn’t a thing today and when it is a thing today, like when Nazis go camping in the Grampians or when a white supremacist commits mass murder, it certainly can’t be linked to news stories, opinion pieces or government policies that reflect the same set of beliefs — the same set of beliefs that dominated the Western world for the past 500 years or so.

The counter position to CRT asks us all to take more of a Leslie-Neilson-in-The-Naked-Gun approach to critically examining the impacts of race and racism in modern society. Because, as John Howard’s Harmony Day teaches us, the best way to eliminate racial discrimination is pretend it doesn’t exist and then ask all of your non-white colleagues at work to bring in some ethnic food on one day a year, but also, only one day a year.

Okay, so now what?
Australia’s conservative pundits and politicians are going to continue to ramp up the campaign against CRT in favour of the idea that racism is just a few random individual skinheads and Nazis. This is important for them so that they can continue to exploit racism for power and profit (the reason racism was created in the first place) while being seen to not only condemn racism but to argue that it is the people fighting against racism (BLM, CRT, pro-refugee, pro-treaty, anti-deaths in custody etc) who are the ‘real racists’.

And as the Human Rights Commission is about to extend their ‘racism it stops with me’ campaign beyond individual acts of racism and onto institutional racism it’s fair to say that the campaign against CRT (and more broadly, the denial that racism exists in Australia) is going to ramp up over the next few months and years. The chess pieces are set. The game is about to begin. If you haven’t done so already, now might be a good time to choose if you want to be on the right side of history.

Critical race theory isn’t on the wrong side of history.