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LIV President's Blog 2012

LIV President's Blog 2013

Reynah Tang, LIV President 2013 on the latest issues and topics. Read and comment.

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Banishing the race card

Banishing the race card

As war ravaged Southern Sudan in the 1980s, thousands of childhoods were interrupted. The conflict took on a deadly intensity, forcing children to flee from their homes and walk, many of them barefoot, to refugee camps in Ethiopia. It was a dangerous journey and there were deaths on the way.

Some became child soldiers. Some were separated from their parents. As young adults, many of them came to Australia as refugees. While learning about a new environment and struggling with their lingering trauma, they have also had to deal with racism in Australia. It is particularly unfortunate when this extends to the very people who are supposed to protect the community and uphold our laws, including laws that prohibit racial vilification.

“Casual” racism
Some of that racism has come in a more menacing form – such as the tragic case of young Sudanese refugee Liep Gony, brutally bashed to death in 2007 in Noble Park. But, as Collingwood footballer Harry O’Brien pointed out following the comments by his club’s president Eddie McGuire last week, there seems to be a more casual form of racism permeating our society.

What could perhaps be described as an example of that graced the front page of Monday’s Herald Sun, which reported that police in Melbourne’s inner west were using stubby holders to mock Africans. According to the newspaper, the stubby holders bore the line: “My date of birth is 01/01/?”

Why is this seemingly innocuous line so offensive? It’s because many Sudanese children grew up not knowing their own age. They had been born in wartime Sudan and never had birth certificates. As more and more children piled into the refugee camps, it was common for workers at the camps to estimate a child’s age and give them the same birthday: the 1st of January. The stubby holders reportedly also bore the image of a mudfish, which the Herald Sun said is “derogatory slang for Africans, referencing the bottom-feeder species that is a common food source in Sudan and other countries”. The story quotes the Northwest metro police commander, Assistant Commissioner Andrew Crisp, describing the production of the stubby holders as “utterly misguided and offensive”.  

It’s disappointing that any member of the police force – which is charged with promoting peace, respect and order in our community – would engage in such behavior. Of course, most police officers do the right thing. It is sad that a case like this, involving a small group of police, could occur after Victoria Police has done some good work to try to eradicate racism.

Racial profiling
At a conference in the US last year, I learnt about “implicit bias”. The theory is that some people may not consciously be aware that they hold biased views about minority groups, and this could have an impact on behaviour. An example of this could be the  Australian National University study that found people with Anglo-Saxon names found it easier to get job interviews than those from minority groups. 
One paper presented at the conference took this further, pointing to studies suggesting that implicit bias influences a range of decisions in a criminal justice setting, and a broader tendency to associate black Americans with crime. The presenters identified a range of actions being taken in the US to overcome such biases.

Racial profiling is even worse, and has long existed. An analysis of Victoria Police LEAP data from 2006 to 2009, by Melbourne University’s Professor Ian Gordon, suggests that Africans around the Flemington and North Melbourne areas were 2.5 times more likely to be stopped by police than other groups, despite having a lower crime rate.

Racial profiling is discriminatory and often affects the most marginalised minority groups. It has health and social consequences, including making people fearful and mistrustful of police. We need to banish racial profiling entirely. 

The Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre has called on the Chief Commissioner to start screening potential police recruits, to weed out those with an overt racial or religious bias. It may sound somewhat drastic, but the LIV supports this call, along with the need for training to eliminate the implicit biases and the more “casual” racism that Harry O’Brien so courageously highlighted.

Victoria Police has just started community consultation on field contact reporting, and is inviting people to make submissions by the end of July. Victoria Police is doing this after a Federal Court settlement with six young men who claimed they were racially discriminated against, assaulted by police and often stopped, questioned and searched simply because they were black.

Share your stories
This consultation process is an historic opportunity to identify and develop lasting solutions to a significant issue. I encourage people to get involved in the consultation, and share their views on how field contact procedures are currently carried out, and how police officers should engage with the community in a respectful and culturally appropriate way. The Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre is also holding a public hearing into racial profiling next month, which will provide another less formal way for people to pass on their experiences.

Sadly, these issues are not new. Yet they persist. The Victoria Police needs to have a centralised way of dealing with racial discrimination – particularly when those issues come from within. 

Some stations now have multicultural liaison officers. Dandenong, for instance, has a large Sudanese community and introduced these officers a few years ago because there was tension between Sudanese youth and local police. But as this week’s story suggests, there’s still so much work to do in this space.

Racial vilification is not acceptable – whether directed at Indigenous players at the football, at girls singing in French on public transport, or, most insidiously, in the form of stubby holders shared among members of the police force.

What do you think Victoria Police should be doing to address these issues?

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