How to fight racism in Australia

Saturday, November 16, 2013

It is not news to progressive people in Australia that this country is profoundly racist.

Extensive anti-asylum seeker policies and racial vilification as government policy, the extension of the Northern Territory intervention and continued discrimination in the workplace and the wider community all means people of colour face significant challenges in modern Australia.

There needs to be serious discussion about how to understand racism and how to fight it. To do this we need to understand the historical roots of racism, its connection with the development of Australian capitalism and its effects on working people of Australia, both materially and in the form of political consciousness.

This analysis must be followed by a political strategy that can create a clear path to struggle against racism, colonialism, oppression and exploitation.


Racism in Australia has to be seen as being beyond simply the realm of ideas. This is one of the basic mistakes of liberal political thinkers when discussing racism. Rather than being rooted in bad ideas, racism is fundamentally ingrained in the way societies are structured.

In the case of Australia, racism developed with the emergence of capitalism during colonisation. The invasion of this continent by Britain and the establishment of a settler-colonial government meant the introduction of genocidal policies towards the Indigenous people. Racist ideas were needed to justify driving people from their land and introducing a policy akin to apartheid.

This is one of the most important points to be drawn from an analysis of racism: that it is not an accident.

Racism is not a historical mistake that can be overcome through tinkering with the present system. Rather it is written into the very structures of capitalist society. As Malcolm X said, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”

Even today, the driving force behind paternalistic and racist politics against Indigenous people is the power of the mining companies and political elite who want to profit from land use and thus, profit from dispossession.

This discrimination is also useful for political rulers to distract voters from policies that cause unemployment, housing shortages and hospital crises.


However, the racism of the Australian society is not simply inflicted on Indigenous people. It is also used against migrants and refugees who are newly arrived in Australia. Yet again, this is a structural form of racism, rooted in Australia’s colonial economy.

As a settler-colonial nation, immigration is an essential part of the Australian capitalist mode of expansion. New workers need to be found to fulfil the needs of industrial growth. However, these workers need to be isolated from the rest of the working class to stop them organising for better wages and conditions. As a result, division is fostered around ethnicity and national origin, primarily by privileging white workers over others in regards to their position in the working class.

Beyond this, there is also the role that Australia plays in the region. As a developed nation in a region surrounded by under-developed countries, Australian workers have a comparatively higher standard of living and, because of this, are convinced that it shares common interests with the ruling class in Australia, rather than looking internationally for solidarity with workers in the Third World.


So where does this lead us in the fight against racism? First, it becomes clear that a structural problem needs a wide-reaching solution and one that has to be rooted in the mass movements of the people, not in government policy. Identifying that racism is rooted in a system of colonisation and capitalism is the first step to developing an anti-racist program.

In beginning such a discussion, we should look at the role of the Indigenous movement. Their history of resistance to colonialism presents an anti-racist history of Australia. Any anti-racist movement will need to work alongside and show support for the struggle for Indigenous rights.

At the same time, an anti-racist movement will need to link up with other movements fighting against oppression such as homophobia, sexism, ableism and transphobia. It should involve the majority of Australians in seeing how oppression is rooted in the broader system of capitalism.

Racism and colonialism are tied up with capitalism and the exploitation of the working class generally. If this is the case, surely the question of self-determination and sovereignty for all people must be tied to the struggle for socialism and popular democracy.

[There will be a discussion about racism and how to fight during a two-day conference “How to make a revolution” in Brisbane over December 13-15. Speakers on this panel include Angus McAllen, Boe Spearim from the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy and Soh Sook Hwa, from the Socialist Party of Malaysia. For more details about the conference, visit]

From GLW issue 989