It’s highly likely that by now you would have seen the video that went viral of several individuals racially abusing and threatening a French woman and others on a Melbourne bus. One of the main protagonists made these threats while pushing a pram and with a small child (presumably his son) walking right behind him.
Around a week earlier, another story made the news, albeit without the same level of hype. Earlier this year in Ascot Vale in Melbourne’s inner West, a student was walking home listening to his iPod when he was set upon by a group of three young men aged between 17 and 21. His only provocation was to be Asian and minding his own business. The men, who identify as skinheads, punched, kicked and stabbed the student, slammed his head into a wall and broke a brick over his head, while yelling “You f___ing gook” and “Lie down you dog, you yellow dog”. Somehow he survived the 10-minute attack, albeit with severe injuries he is yet to recover from.
One of the men involved, 21 year old Shannon Hudson, is a distant relative of CBD killer Christopher Wayne Hudson, and already had a long rap sheet of convictions. A forensic psychologist testified that he had “low I.Q., a borderline personality disorder and empathy issues and was a product of foetal alcohol syndrome”. Also involved was 20 year old Wayne O’Brien, who likewise ticks several boxes of dysfunction: homeless and intoxicated at the time, had dropped out of school, a history of substance abuse, and from a broken home. The court heard that he had been traumatised several years ago by the torture and murder of his older brother Christopher, who was intellectually disabled and also had been in trouble with the law.
What’s my point here? The common denominator is low social class. The “skinhead” youths are from what you might consider the “underclass”. Less is known at this point about the individuals involved in the bus incident, but their manner and speech betrays them as rather less than well-to-do.
It’s the same reason that the attacks on Indian students in Melbourne centred around inner-Western suburbs like Sunshine (unaffectionately known as “Scumshine” by some), and the bashing of an Indian student that resulted in Victoria’s first use of racial vilification laws took place on the bus out of Frankston (unaffectionately known as “Shankston” or “Franghanistan”).
It is common, and not illegitimate, to look at racist incidents as part of a broader spectrum of attitudes towards race and culture in Australia. So you could, for example, find commonalities between an aggressive incident on a bus, and our history of dispossessing Aboriginal people, and our previously discriminatory immigration policies, and the current consternation over asylum seekers. But by the same token, incidents of racist aggression can also be viewed as part of a broader spectrum of anti-social behaviour, be it drug-related crimes, drunken brawls, and other kinds of domestic or street violence. And while there will always be plenty of exceptions, these occurrences are far more likely to be perpetrated by people from a certain strata of society. The reasons primarily stem from living or growing up in an environment with lack of opportunities and role models for success.
It’s not nice talking about class, particularly “what’s wrong with the lower classes”. Particularly for a Lefty such as myself, it gives no great satisfaction to imply that people of higher social classes tend to be above doing certain undesirable behaviours. Of course, this doesn’t mean that poorer individuals have greater criminal tendencies, any more than it means that wealthy individuals are better human beings. And note that we are talking about racially-motivated criminal violence here, not merely racist attitudes. Racism occurs at every strata of society, although perhaps to different degrees. Are the lower classes more racist or xenophobic than the middle and wealthier classes? Marginally. Higher education does tends to correlate with open-mindedness and a tendency towards “progressive” values. But it’s also true that more educated and genteel people are better at obscuring their prejudices than the uneducated. Knowing how to use politically correct terminology, or knowing when to keep your mouth shut in certain company, does not mean someone is less racist.
Clearly, the racism of the more wealthy and middle classes is often not as obvious and visceral as that of the less privileged. But what about its overall impact?
The effects of prejudice are magnified by the power of its holder. And the most feral and uncouth segments of our society – the types of people whose xenophobia manifests in racially abusing or attacking migrants on the street or on public transport - are also the most powerless. You might argue that this very powerlessness is an important factor underlying the behaviour they might engage in. And while there is an inherent power dynamic in those public acts of violence, the underclass do not generally own or manage companies, or have a significant say in the workings of the various levels of government. The xenophobia of the better-off classes tends to manifest in ways that are more subtle, yet are destructive all the same. Studies show that employers are much less likely to grant interviews to job applicants with “ethnic” names, and the people making these decisions are not deadbeat bogans. When politicians institute racially discriminatory immigration policies, we are talking about university-educated, privileged members of society. Likewise with the men of ideas and influence who help fuel the flames of xenophobia in this country, such as Andrew Bolt and his boss Rupert Murdoch.
Indeed, a salient example comes from one of the best-known examples of racist violence in recent Australian history: the Cronulla Riots. The incident stemmed from tensions between two working class groups, with a mob of local whites overreacting in vicious fashion against the thuggish behaviour of some young Lebanese men from outside the area. But while these two groups took turns to mindlessly retaliate against the perceived aggression of the other, which individual played the biggest role in whipping rioters into a frenzy? A multi-millionaire broadcaster and close personal friend of the leader of the Liberal Party.