It's not OK to look the other way

5 April 2013

It was a shock to look at the Sydney Morning Herald website this week, and see one of my doctoral students being racially abused by an apparently drunken man. An even greater shock was to see that most people on the 470 bus - including the driver - did little to help. Did they support the racist rant? Or did they just lack the courage to speak up? Mr Kim - my student - tells me that this was far from his first experience of racial abuse, and that other Koreans living here have had similar or worse experiences, including violence.

At the University of Sydney, where he studies, my research compares migration and ethnic relations in Australia, Turkey and Mexico. Last year I did fieldwork in South Korea, with the able support of Mr Kim. I experienced nothing but politeness and willingness to help wherever I went - even though I speak no Korean. That is not to say that there is no hostility to migrants in South Korea. The targets are migrant workers who are important for the economy but have few rights - not foreign academics like me.

Unfortunately, racism is a widespread problem. It is usually strongest where people feel threatened by rapid change. In Britain, where the economic crisis remains severe, the anti-immigration UK Independence Party is on the rise. In the Netherlands, where people feel the effects of the eurozone crisis, Geert Wilders' Freedom Party is riding on a tide of hostility to Muslim immigrants.

But why Australia? We are not in an economic crisis. In 2013 Australia is ranked No.2 on the United Nations' Human Development Index - the best comparative rating of quality of life. Yet despite our prosperity, inequality is rising and many people are doing it tough. Our politicians buy into the debate, suggesting asylum seekers or the 457 visa holders are to blame - not the huge corporations which pay little tax, nor the governments that cut welfare and health services.

Australia has a long tradition of racism, starting with the colonial treatment of Aboriginal people, the White Australia policy from 1901 to the early 1970s, and the hostility to each new wave of immigrants. Racism can tear societies apart. Isn't it time we got over it and began to understand how much this country owes to the economic, social and civic contributions of immigrants and refugees? We should be proud of our history of cultural diversity. We should also be taking action against discrimination and vilification of minorities, and providing adequate training and support to people whose jobs sometimes put them in the frontline - like bus drivers. What's so hard about standing up and telling some one to stop racist behaviour?

Sydney University takes this very seriously. Our intellectual credibility depends on us being a community of scholars that offers high-quality educational opportunities to all. Education is now one of Australia's leading economic sectors. This will only continue if we can show that our campuses and our cities are safe and welcoming places for people of every background.

Professor Stephen Castles is from the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.

The original article can be seen here

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