Saying sorry for Aboriginal oppression


Comment by Lisa Macdonald

The full picture of the attempted genocide of Australia's indigenous people still remains largely unacknowledged in official Australian history. This is because of (rather than despite) the fact that the forcible removal of Aboriginal Australians from their land; their murder, starvation and enslavement; and the efforts to destroy every aspect of their culture by the English colonisers was an essential building block of Australian capitalism.

Without that free land and labour, the original white pastoralists and mine owners, and their descendants, would have had a much harder time accumulating the millions of dollars they have extracted from the natural riches of this country.

This hidden history — that Aboriginal oppression, and the racist ideology that justified it, were central to the development and continuation of capitalist rule in this country — must be exposed if many more Australians are to be convinced to support native title and the anti-racism struggle.

The release last year of the report of the Royal Commission into the Separation of Aboriginal Children from their Families made an important contribution to that exposure.

One of the recommendations of that inquiry was for a formal apology from the federal government. This demand, now being raised by almost all indigenous spokespeople and white anti-racism campaigners, is important and useful.

A formal apology won't do anything to improve the appalling living conditions that are inflicted on most indigenous Australians today. But calling on the government to apologise for the past treatment of indigenous Australians by the capitalist state and church does point the finger at the perpetrators of Aboriginal oppression and begins to draw the link to those groups in whose interests the government legislates, in the past and present.

Howard should apologise. The fact that he even refuses to make this symbolic gesture testifies to the profoundly racist and reactionary character of his government and its big business masters. If for no other reason but to expose this further, the movement should continue to demand that Howard apologise.

What is not correct, however, is to generalise this demand to insist that all ordinary non-indigenous people take responsibility for and apologise for indigenous oppression.

The majority of non-indigenous people are not responsible for Aborigines' oppression.

All white people do benefit from non-white oppression. To the degree that Aborigines are concentrated in the lowest level of political, economic and social existence, white working people are proportionately spared that fate. They enjoy a measure of protection on the basis of race from the worst excesses of capitalist exploitation.

But these "white privileges" are thoroughly circumscribed by a person's class position. Only a small minority, in particular the mining and pastoral capitalists, benefit directly and substantially from Aboriginal dispossession.

Because racial oppression is systemic under capitalism, white privileges also accrue independently of the will of white individuals and no amount of personal regret will, in itself, reduce the real oppression of Aboriginal people.

The anti-racism movement must do more to raise white working-class people's consciousness about racism, educate them about who benefits from the systematic oppression of Aboriginal people, and push them to speak out and act against racism whenever and wherever they see it.

Calling on individual members of the working class to say "sorry", however, encourages a sense of equal responsibility for racial oppression and does not in itself challenge racism.

Worse, it reinforces ordinary white people's identification as white, rather than as members of the working class who have more in common with indigenous people than with white capitalists. It thereby obfuscates the fact that, despite what the scare-mongering, racist media tells them, their real interests lie in struggling alongside indigenous people against every building block of capitalism — the wage labour system, women's oppression, national chauvinism and racial oppression.

By locating racism first and foremost in individuals rather than focusing on the systemic nature of racial oppression, calling on all non-indigenous people to "say sorry" also depoliticises the race debate by isolating and pacifying working-class people.

Rather than calling on them to say sorry, the anti-racism movement should be loudly and clearly calling on them to "get angry and get active against racism".

The movement should be demanding, not an apology from all non-Aborigines, and not only an apology from governments, but:

  • full financial compensation for dispossession and all of the negative consequences for indigenous people that have flowed from that;

  • land rights now;

  • preferential treatment (affirmative action) for indigenous people in education, employment and social services; and

  • Aboriginal control over Aboriginal affairs.

These basic anti-capitalist demands attack the heart and lifeblood of racism undermining one of the capitalists' most potent and reliable weapons of class rule.

A committed and active working-class movement fighting on every front to achieve these demands would be well on the way to not merely to acknowledging Aboriginal oppression but eradicating its very foundations.

[Lisa Macdonald is a national executive member of the Democratic Socialist Party.]<>><>41559MS>n<>255D>