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Addressing Systemic Racism

Associate Professor Danielle CelermajerAssociate Professor Danielle Celermajer

Danielle Celermajer is an Associate Professor in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. She is currently directing a three-year European Union funded project on Torture Prevention in Sri Lanka and Nepal and was formerly director of the EU funded Asia Pacific Masters of Human Rights and Democratisation. She is author of Sins of the Nation and the Ritual of Apology (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Prior to joining the Academy she was the Senior Policy Officer in the Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.


Mr Ihab ShalbakMr Ihab Shalbak

Mr Ihab Shalbak works as a lecturer in the Human Rights Program in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney. Previously, Ihab worked for State and Federal human rights agencies. His research interests include institutions and interpretations of knowledge, the rise of the social, Euro-American comparative intellectual history and aesthetic political practices.

Dr Dinesh WadiwelDr Dinesh Wadiwel

Dr Dinesh Wadiwel lectures in human rights and socio-legal studies in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney. His research interests include sovereignty, rights, violence and critical animal studies. Dinesh has worked extensively in non-government social justice organisations over the past 15 years, with a focus on disability rights, multiculturalism and anti-poverty.

The achievements of anti-discrimination laws and multicultural policies over the last thirty years have left many Australians with a sense of complacency about the threat of racism to our social integrity/harmony and political equality. But as readers of this publication will be aware, and as the current European experience demonstrates, racism remains alive, and in some senses an increasingly dangerous dimension of contemporary social and political life.

Racism operates on a number of levels. Individual racism, such as racial slurs or differential treatment of an individual, can deeply affect a person’s self-worth, and shape his or her ability to participate in a nation’s social, political and economic life. It is well covered, at least in a formal sense, by existing anti-discrimination laws, which allow for individuals to lodge complaints with the Australian Human Rights Commission or Anti-Discrimination Bodies at the State level where they believe they have experienced discriminatory treatment.

Systemic racism, on the other hand, does not take the form of specific actions, but is evident in the ways in which institutions—such as education providers, government agencies or the police—operate and the form they take, leading to systematic, entrenched inequality in resources and power between ethnic and racial groups. It is still individuals who are affected by systematic racism, but indirectly, insofar as they are unable to participate on an equal footing in those institutions, or in the sense that when they come into contact with those institutions (as is the case with the police), they are subject to differential treatment. Precisely because of its indirect nature, however, systemic racism is much more difficult for individuals to identify and counter, and anti-discrimination laws, which are oriented around particular acts, are inadequate to deal with it. Nevertheless, there is certainly recent research that provides evidence of systemic racism in Australia: for example, in relation to poor academic performance for Indigenous school students; or in relation to selection for job interviews.

It is important to note that systemic racism need not be accompanied by individual acts of discrimination. For example, staff in a higher education institution may be polite and helpful to all people regardless of background; however the policies of that institution may systematically exclude or marginalise certain groups of people, such as people with low English proficiency, or people whose cultural communication or socialisation styles are experienced as inferior rather than different. This phenomenon was poignantly described in the reports of the 1987–1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. While pointing out that police actions may entrench disadvantage, the Commission observed that this does not imply that individual police officers are themselves racist:

This is not to say that all, or even most, police wish to maintain the subordination of Aboriginal people, nor that they are the only institution in Australian society that act to do so. Nevertheless, the routine nature of much of their involvement with Aboriginal people means that their day-to-day practices act to entrench the subordination of Aboriginal people and, with it, racist attitudes in the dominant society. (Report 2, 13.4.42)

The challenge here, from a public policy perspective, is how to address racism that is not direct and individual, but endemic and structural.  Because systemic racism is not reducible to the attitudes or actions of individuals within institutions, keeping track of and addressing structural racism requires a different focus from addressing individual racism. It demands in the first instance that governments be able to scrutinise the polices and operational cultures of institutions with an eye to diagnosing the implicit assumptions that they make about race or culture and differential impact of those policies on people from different racial, ethnic or cultural backgrounds. In the longer term, it demands that governments apply vigilance to understanding the long term impact of policies and institutions upon outcomes for racial and ethnic groups.

In their submission to the National Anti-Racism Strategy consultation, researchers at the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (IDHR) at the University of Sydney recommended that the Strategy specifically address systemic racial discrimination as a new objective, with proposed eight elements, which we discuss below.

Recognising our history. Australia has a history that includes dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and maintenance of racist laws and practices for much of the twentieth century. While there have been substantial efforts to remove legal discrimination on the basis of race, descent, or ethnic origin, the historical effects of these policies continue to effect living members of Australian society. Formal acknowledgement by Australian governments of their historical maintenance of racially discriminatory law, policy and institutions and the continuing legacy of these practices upon individuals and groups within the Australian community, including unequal, social and economic outcomes for these Australians, is needed.  The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (‘Bringing them Home’) is one example of a public process which has highlighted the continuing impact of past racist practices.

Implement the Indigenous Declaration. In 2009 Australia signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration contains the agreed international principles on the rights of Indigenous peoples, including the right to self-determination and the right to self-government, and distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions. Implementation of the Declaration in Australia would offer a strong conceptual basis for challenging systemic forms of racism as they affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Collect data to identify systemic racism. There is a need for improved data collection, monitoring and dissemination in relation to social and economic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse communities. Where existing administrative or population datasets are unable to provide relevant information, they should be improved to create capacity to measure Australia’s performance in ensuring substantive equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse communities. Data should be appropriately disaggregated to take into account outcomes for women, children, older people and people with disability.

Resource new research. There is significant scope to expand resources available for organisations and researchers to better understand systemic racism in Australia, using both qualitative and quantitative approaches. Adequate and effective resources should be made available to fund new research on the changing experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse communities with respect to Australia’s laws, policies, institutions and practices. New research should take into account the intersectional experiences of women, children, older people and people with disability.

Audit and review processes. Open, transparent policy and legislative audit and review processes are needed, that: (a) are able to prevent the creation of law and policies that are directly or indirectly racially discriminatory, in terms of equality of opportunity and in terms of substantive outcomes; and (b) provide for ongoing review of the outcomes of laws and policies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse communities with a goal of ensuring substantive equality and observance of international human rights obligations. Policy and legislative audit and review must apply to all areas of Australian law, including extraordinary practices, such as the Northern Territory Emergency Response, and immigration and refugee policy. Audit and Review processes could be embedded within existing Australian Government monitoring, such as within the social inclusion monitoring framework, the Australian Human Rights Framework and the annual Productivity Commission Report on Government Services.

National identity. Action by Governments, communities, businesses and individuals across fields such as media and popular culture, arts, education, sports and recreation shape concepts of  national identity and what it means to be Australian. Restrictive conceptions of national identity have a potential to alienate individuals where they exclude cultures, beliefs and practices. Governments, communities, businesses and individuals all have a responsibility to shape national culture with an aim to reduce systemic discrimination and enhance the distribution of material, informational and symbolic resources.

Positive rights and special measures. Use of special measures to improve outcomes for individuals and groups is enabled in Articles 1.4 and 2.2 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). We believe that where historical practices of systemic racial discrimination have compromised the enjoyment of substantive equality, there is a strong case for special measures—such as affirmative action programs—to improve rights and protection for groups and individuals. There is significant scope to realise positive rights, particularly with respect to access to employment and education. Broader use of this provision in recognition of structural dimensions of racism should be canvassed.

Resourcing civil society. A vibrant non-government sector is increasingly central to encouraging democratic debate, advocating for disadvantaged groups and promoting positive social change. There is significant scope for the provision of resources to civil society organisations, including Indigenous and multicultural non-government organisations, to actively pursue an agenda of addressing systemic racial discrimination embodied in laws, policies, institutions and practices within Australia, and to support individuals and groups to participate democratically in social, economic and cultural change. Resourcing could also include enabling civil society organisations to take legal action on behalf of individuals and groups.

For a full list of references, please contact: Dr Dinesh Wadiwel at