If you were scandalised by the racism inside the Collingwood Football Club, cop this. All over Australia, there are Facebook groups targeting Indigenous kids by posting photos and naming those who’ve allegedly been involved in property offences. Bad enough. Then these groups encourage vigilantism.

By Jenna Price
The Sydney Morning Herald
February 14, 2021

“Time these little grubs disappeared”, “soon enough this is going to be a bloody blood shed someones [sic] going to die”, “shoot every single one” and “why don’t we all get a few dads together and teach these young want a be [sic] gansgters a f—ing lesson I got about 8 blokes keen as f— already let’s run these little scum bags out of town”.

As the now former Collingwood president Eddie McGuire was rightly castigated for declaring that the release of the Do Better report into the club’s history of “systemic racism” was actually a “historic and proud day for the club”, a 22-year-old woman was killed in Townsville, caught up in a stolen car chase. Locals claim vigilantism was involved. One Townsville woman says the dramatic increase in youth crime has seen a spike in online racism, urging vigilantism.

No stars, no sporting figures – just kids with targets on their back. These groups were revealed by Chris Cunneen, professor at the Indigenous Law and Justice Hub at the Jumbunna Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, and his co-author Sophie Russell.

Replace the word Collingwood in the Do Better report with the word Australia and you have an accurate assessment of the state of racism in this country: that’s certainly the view of key Australian researchers. Just like Collingwood, Australia “is perceived as being defensive, doubling down and denying allegations instead of taking an active and proactive approach”.

For nearly 30 years, Kevin Dunn, now pro vice-chancellor at Western Sydney University, has studied racism and antiracism. He says there is a grudging use of the word racism in public documents – but still little acceptance from leaders racism even exists in Australia.

“Leadership is critical – racism fades and falls or flourishes according to the political settings of the day,” says Dunn. “Morrison and co have not demonstrated any commitment to antiracism. There is not a single antiracism program initiative and not a single policy in this government committed to antiracism.”

Nor is Dunn optimistic the Collingwood report will be some kind of flex point by itself – but may work alongside the Black Lives Matter movement and increasing scrutiny of far-right groups in Australia for change. Just as the Collingwood report emphasises, racism is structural.

“Could we see some action from the federal government? I’m not that optimistic in the current environment.” says Dunn.

Now the Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan has called on the federal government to fund and support a national antiracism framework. It would lay the groundwork for a standardised system across all states and territories to accurately identify and collate the data on any iteration of racism, from physical attacks to online abuse. Last week, the Senate committee into the issues facing diaspora communities recommended the government consider resourcing the development of a comprehensive national antiracism framework and to consider reinvigorating the existing National Anti-Racism Strategy through the Race Discrimination Commissioner.

That’s a two-pronged demand for antiracism action by a government which has over five years cut the funding for the Australian Human Rights Commission – and national projects cost big money.

Experts in the area say they can’t see money flowing. At least one activist said bipartisanship against racism died with the political birth of Pauline Hanson.

Gail Mason is a professor of criminology at the University of Sydney law school and co-director of the Australian Hate Crime Network. She says the government should do far more than merely “consider” resourcing antiracism programs.

“Australia pretends it doesn’t have a hate crime problem,” Mason says. “That’s exacerbated by communities feeling they can’t or shouldn’t report it … under-reporting is a huge problem. I am often asked if hate crime is going up in Australia but we don’t have the data to answer that.

“Police aren’t trained and equipped to identify it and some states and territories don’t even capture it. We should demand a fully funded national scheme to collect data on hate crimes.”

There are individual initiatives. The anti-Semitism report by Julie Nathan for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) doesn’t count online hate comments as incidents. It attracts no government funding although it has a tax-deductible fund. The Islamophobia Register, founded by Mariam Veiszadeh in 2014, is a non-profit which records any Australian-based Islamophobic incidents reported by victims, proxies and witnesses, both online and offline.

There is nothing comparable for any Asian communities even though more than 5 per cent of Australians claim Chinese ancestry and more then 4 per cent, Indian. Last year, Osmond Chiu, a research fellow at Per Capita (a progressive think tank) and the Asian Australian Alliance, created an online tracker of incidents of anti-Asian racism – 500 incidents reported, mostly in public places and perpetrated by mostly strangers, and 90 per cent of respondents did not report to police.

The Online Hate Prevention Institute tracks online hate against all targets with no funding assistance. Now Jumbunna’s Chris Cunneen and the National Justice Project are set to pilot the First Nations Racism Register, to be trialled across urban and regional communities. Cunneen says calls for First Nations people to report hate crimes to police are out of touch with reality.

“There are barriers to people using existing mechanisms. They don’t use them, they don’t have faith in them, they don’t know about them … and that goes for the remedies as well,” says Cuneen.

Gail Mason asks: “How can you fix it if you don’t know what it is or who is doing it?″⁣

Peter Wertheim, co-chief executive officer of ECAJ, has lobbied for a national system for classifying and recording hate crimes. He says the US, Canada and the United Kingdom – comparable jurisdictions – have no problem building uniform national databases with relevant detail.

“How do you formulate effective policy without data and evidence?” he asks.

Diplomatically, Race Discrimination Commissioner Tan says all governments have different priorities.

Social cohesion survey

Monash emeritus professor Andrew Markus last week launched the Scanlon Institute’s 2020 Mapping Social Cohesion report that revealed relatively high levels of negative opinion towards Asian-Australians – and high levels of concern from Asian-Australian respondents.

It conducted a smaller survey on WeChat which asked: “Have you experienced any form of discrimination because of your appearance, ethnicity or national origin over the last 12 months?” Over a quarter of respondents (27 per cent) answered yes, a further 20 per cent declined to answer, interpreted by researchers as “a cultural reluctance to draw attention to themselves”, indicating that the experience of discrimination is likely to be under-reported by Chinese-Australians.

Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said racism in Australia during the COVID-19 crisis was “a very big problem” or “a fairly big problem”.

The report also surveyed respondents about six faith groups. Muslims were viewed most negatively, then Sikhs, Hindus and Christians. Jews were rated negatively by just 9 per cent, then Buddhists. It is, Markus says, the difference between substance and volume, “what the substantive population thinks whereas if you are online in the Twitter space, you get a totally skewed understanding”.

What happens in the online space has a fundamental impact on perception and on action, as evidenced by those vigilante groups in Townsville.

Anti-Semitism has experienced a massive online surge through far-right groups such as QAnon, clustering in communities, says Talia Lavin, the author of Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy. She was motivated to write her book, which was published in October, after hearing the chant at the 2017 Charlottesville rally: “The Jews will not replace us.”

Lavin frequented chatrooms during her undercover online investigations and emerged unbowed but predicting a violent election season in the US.

“There’s a lot of conspiracy theories you can adopt – but most adapt the idea of a nefarious elite who are engaged in a deliberate plan which includes sexual perversion and financial control,” Lavin says.

“It includes countless dog whistles, anti-Semitic tropes from the 20th century and earlier. We have definitely seen the way these toxic ideas metastasise throughout social media.”

Online racism is mostly anonymous. A large scale quantitative study of online anti-Semitism published last year – using millions of data points from far-right web communities such as 4chan’s Politically Incorrect board (/pol/) and Gab – showed a strong correlation between the increased frequency of anti-Semitic content and major public events, such as the US presidential election and the Charlottesville rally. As the authors point out, anti-Semitism has been a historical harbinger of ethnic strife – but the internet has supercharged it and it is, mostly, unchecked and unpunished.

Antiracism scholar Lars Rensmann, Director of the Research Centre for the Study of Democratic Cultures and Politics at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, says social media corporations must take action.

“We have to regulate. Hate speech should be a criminal act with a law enforcement response,” he says. But even before racists and bigots get to spread their bile online, we should make a better attempt at early intervention, he says. “There must be a level of investment in education against racism.”

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, last week announced it is taking a tougher stance against racist abuse, threatening to disable accounts found to repeatedly send racist abuse in direct messages. Instagram already puts temporary messaging bans on accounts after incidents of racist abuse and said it would now disable any new accounts created to get around its restrictions.

An account that sent racist abuse to a football player in England the day of the announcement was not disabled. Instagram said it issued a temporary messaging ban and would let the account remain active as long as the abuse did not continue in the long term.

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies CEO Vic Alhadeff responds to anti-Semitic incidents across the state, including a recent spike in right-wing extremism in the education sector.

“While there is no logic in bigotry, several factors contribute to this spike … social media has become a toxic space. Not only does it lend itself to being utilised by people wishing to peddle poison, it encourages them to plumb the darkest recesses of the web and engage in extremist behaviour.”

He makes the same case as those from First Nations, Asian and Muslim communities.

“We see the impact of leadership, and the effect of its absence, in shaping the outcome of extremist incidents and how effectively we generate a message which promotes diversity and makes it clear bigotry will not be tolerated,” Alhadeff says. “This makes early prevention and education vital steps in pre-empting extremist behaviour.”

In 2014, professor of anthropology at the University of Melbourne Ghassan Hage, a Lebanese-Australian, wrote in his essay Continuity and Change in Australian Racism: “I take it for granted that racism circulates in Australia, like it does in most other countries of the world … the important task is to try and understand how it does so; how it circulates and how it captures, hurts and sometimes even destroys people.”

Hage says in Australia “we have a record number of denials of the existence of racism”.

“In Australia we seem to think it is the racists who get to decide whether we are racists are not. We have a good tradition of peace movements and organisations in Australia but if you are antiracist you will never be satisfied with what you have achieved. It is important to have a horizon but also to think on a daily basis what one can achieve.”

Now he neatly paraphrases Do Better, without having read it. “Racism is a structural feature of society and you just hope to fight it, minimise its occurrences and effects so on the horizon we can work together and hope to see less of it.”

Or, as Do Better reported, 2020 challenged us: “It has also been a time, through the increased spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement, where it has become more apparent than ever that the racism of the past will not be tolerated into the future.”

As the communities say, we have to count it to crack it.