Speech from “Speak Out Against Racism” Rally
A speech given at the ‘Rally Against Racism’, held on July 2nd 2010 under the “I have a Dream” mural in down-town Newtown (Sydney, Australia)
It is my privilege to address you today under this magnificent sign, in this magnificent town where I was born and raised, in a country that I once believed was renowned for giving all of its inhabitants a fair go.
But prejudice and racism are eating away at our society and I do believe that unless we can stop the rot we are well on our way to becoming yet another apartheid state that gives preferential treatment to some people over others, solely on the basis of their country of origin.
I believe that there are three levels on which racism can operate in a community. The first and most simple is seen in the prevalence of racially motivated jokes and slurs that might occur in, say, a football locker room. Such quips are distasteful and can be hurtful, but are only the first signs of racism impregnating a community.
The second level is where racial slurs and practices become an acceptable part of the culture, such that people stop questioning prejudicial attitudes and behaviours, and racism becomes the social norm. The third level is where racism becomes enshrined in law, and this is what we are seeing happen increasingly in today’s Australia!
One of the things that makes the Nazi holocaust stand out as a particularly horrendous act of social evil is the way in which racism had become embedded in every level of government in Nazi Germany. It wasn’t just socially acceptable to discriminate against people of other nationalities. It was the law! And when we look at the way the law functions in this country, we seem to be sliding down that same slippery slope!
Last week I had lunch in Villawood Detention Centre, and as someone who has visited most of the prisons in this state I can tell you honestly that I saw no visible difference between the Detention Centrefor refugees and some of our prisons! In other words, it is not just socially acceptable to treat refugees as criminals any more. It is the law!
The tragic deportation of my friend, Sheikh Mansour Leghaei, is another case in point. For those who don’t know the story, Sheikh Mansour was judged to be a security threat by the Australian Intelligence Services (ASIO). What was the basis of this negative assessment? He was never told.
The man had lived here peaceably for 16 years and raised a family. More than that, he contributed significantly to his local community by trying to break down prejudicial barriers and build harmony between Christians and Muslims and people of other faith traditions and people of no faith tradition. This man was an asset to the Australian community, but somebody took a dislike to him. Why? I’m not sure, but I am sure that if he had been a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant he would never have encountered any of these problems.
And again, it’s not just a case of nasty people playing out grudges. It is the law! We have a law in this country that says if you are not a citizen of this country you are not entitled to a fair trial! If you are a refugee or a visitor to this country, you are not entitled to procedural fairness! Justice is for citizens only, and in the end, for white and wealthy citizens only!
What ever happened to the Australian ideal that everybody in this land should be entitled to a fair go? Certainly racism in this country has moved beyond the locker-room and into the very fabric of our system!
Can our legal system be reformed? I have no idea. But I do believe that it is within our power to cut off racism at its root (at the very first level) by saying ‘no’ to prejudicial behaviour and actions when they first appear – by refusing to laugh at racial jokes, by refusing to accept stereotypes of our indigenous sisters and brothers, by refusing to label refugees as criminals, and by rejecting the fiction that our Muslim neighbours are all involved in some terrible violent plot to overthrow white middle-class society.
We can fight prejudice and we can fight it with the truth! Racism is a weed that can only grow in the manure of ignorance. Spread the truth, sisters and brothers, that all of God’s children are created as equals and that everybody in our community is deserving of respect, that nobody in this country should have to live as second-class citizens, that everybody in this land should be given a fair go. (speech from July 2nd, 2010)