Constructing Racism in Australia

By Dunn, Kevin M.; McDonald, Amy | Australian Journal of Social Issues, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Constructing Racism in Australia

Dunn, Kevin M., McDonald, Amy, Australian Journal of Social Issues


There is a dearth of empirical evidence on the extent of racist attitudes, broadly defined, in Australia. A telephone survey of 5056 residents in Queensland and NSW examined attitudes to cultural difference, perceptions of the extent of racism, tolerance of specific groups, ideology of nation, perceptions of Anglo-Celtic cultural privilege, and belief in racialism, racial separatism and racial hierarchy. The research was conducted within a social constructivist understanding of racisms. Racist attitudes are positively associated with age, non-tertiary education, and to a slightly lesser extent with those who do not speak a language other than English, the Australia-born, and with males. Anti-Muslim sentiment is very strong, but there is also a persistence of some intolerance against Asian, Indigenous and Jewish Australians. Those who believe in racial hierarchy and separatism (old racisms) are a minority and are largely the same people who self-identify as being prejudiced. The 'new racisms' of cultural intolerance, denial of Anglo-privilege and narrow constructions of nation have a much stronger hold. Nonetheless, sociobiologically related understandings of race and nation remain linked to these new racisms. Narrow understandings of what constitutes a nation (and a community) are in tension with equally widely held liberal dispositions towards cultural diversity and dynamism. Encouragingly, most respondents recognise racism as a problem in Australian society and this is a solid basis for anti-racism initiatives.


Racism is a historic and yet varied societal problem. It has taken particular forms in societies such as Australia, Canada, Israel, the United States and New Zealand, where massive immigration and the multicultural basis of recent immigration policy has resulted in ever more ethnically diverse populations. Recently in Australia racism has been most discussed during the so-called race debates of 1996 and 1997, associated with the rise of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party. Yet these debates occurred amidst what Jayasuriya (2002: 40) has criticised as the "paucity: of thinking about race and racism in Australia". The examination of racism in the 1990s has been championed by cultural studies scholars (Goodall et al. 1994; Hage 1998), although there has been a continued interest among social psychologists (Pederson et al. 2000). However, there is a dearth of recent empirical evidence about the nature and extent of racism in Australia. McAllister and Moore's (1989) study is the most recent academic survey. Between 1996 and 1998, the Australian Federal Government commissioned an inquiry into racism in Australia but the results have not been publicly released (DIMA 1998:1). There is, therefore, an information gap on the extent, variation and impact of racism in Australia which this study sought to address.

Sources of racist attitudes

The emphasis in this study was to interrogate racist attitudes in Australia, building on Dunn and McDonald's (2001) pilot study in New South Wales. Among applicable theories, we include the thinking of traditional urbanists (Simmel 1903;Wirth 1938), neo-Marxist explanations (Solomos 1986), the Chicago School (Park 1950) and more recently, social constructivism (Bonnet 1996; Kobayashi & Peake 1994; Miles 1989). Each of these retains substantial explanatory potential, but here we focus on social constructivism. Constructivism, according to Jackson and Penrose (1993, 3) works by identifying the components and processes of category construction: categories of cultural identity as well as what constitutes racism itself. This approach is particularly useful for uncovering background ideologies that sustain both racist attitudes (broadly defined) and anti-racism.

Racist and anti-racist (or non-racist) attitudes are often coexistent, and a social constructivist approach also aids an understanding of that apparent contradiction. …

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