Race to the bottom

This is an unwell country. It is a country of metastatic racism, whose politics and public debate is riddled with it.

Once it was tempting to hope this cancer was in remission. The last vestiges of the White Australia Policy were gone. Multiculturalism was being taught in schools. Once it seemed as if Australia might have changed.

That was a mistake. The old fear never left. Any person of colour knew it, the racism that lingered even after the country grew up. Any person who bothered to consider the experiences of people of colour knew it.

To them, there was no surprise in the posters put up in Sydney, calling for the deportation of Waleed Aly and Yassmin Abdel-Magied, describing her as a “shit stain” and him as a liar. Another shows African men “supported by welfare and proceeds of crime” and describes Asian property investors as “chinkamon”.

There was no surprise in Rowan Dean’s smirking editorial on Sky News, either, where he told Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane to “hop on a plane and go back to Laos”.

There was no surprise in Prue MacSween’s comments on 2GB, where she said Abdel-Magied was right to not feel safe in Australia and that if she saw her in the street she would “be tempted to run her over”. Later, she described her as a parasite: “We don’t give this flea a second thought anymore since she’s slinked away from this country in disgrace.”

There is something sick in the satisfaction of it. Dean’s comments were clearly prepared. He intended them. MacSween defended hers as satire. “I feel sorry for anyone whose idea of entertainment is to demonstrate a limited capacity for understanding, and engage in trollish behaviour.” And again: “To all you festering, humourless Twitter ferals. Go tell someone who cares. Last time I looked this was a country of free speech. Get a life.”

There is a sense now that this is okay. Our politics has explicitly encouraged it. Our media revels in it. The marginalised are again the most despised.

“This kind of racism isn’t ‘fringe’ or ‘a couple of bad apples’. It isn’t just a few people ‘having a lark’,” Abdel-Magied said earlier this week, before MacSween’s comments.

“These reflect racist attitudes that are pervasive, deeply embedded and structural. It’s reflective of a society where right-wing politicians have spent years trying to lower the bar for racist attacks and dismantle racial discrimination legislation.”

Racism needs to be fought. It cannot be left to its victims to have that fight. It needs to be purged from our media, its every sly inference or overt attack criticised and condemned. It needs to be ridded from our politics, argued and rejected.

Until we do this, we will remain sick. Our country will be sick. We will be quarantined from the world, unsure and unwell, living with a virus that is fatal.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 15, 2017 as "Race to the bottom".

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