The crimson thread of racism festers in the darker interstices of Australian culture

Apr 9, 2024
Sun set reminiscent of the iconic Australian Aboriginal flag.

In 1890 Henry Parkes spoke of “The crimson thread of kinship running through us all.” He believed this “crimson thread” – evocative of blood – united all white people in the Australian colonies and bound them to Britain. The federation he was advocating for Australia was to be exclusively white and eternally British.

In contemporary Australia, reactionaries like John Howard have inherited Parkes’ racism. In the face of all the contradictory evidence, they deny that white Australian culture is fundamentally racist. Howard’s prejudices – shared by many of his generation and not a few younger people – are evidence of a distinctive hardness at the centre of Australia’s hegemonically white culture.

The values that define the hard culture are rooted in prejudiced understandings of what is morally right; ethical nuancing is utterly beyond its imagining. It rigidly resists change. It signals that outsiders who fail to conform to conventional norms are to be punished, marginalised, or excluded altogether. Its entrenched racism is reinforced by a paranoid populist perspective on the world, by rigidly prescribed gender roles that result in the shocking flourishing of a sociopathic version of masculinism, and by a glib secularism that completely misunderstands authentic religiosity in the spiritual history of humanity.

The social, economic and political marginalisation of Indigenous Australians is a direct consequence of the racism at the core of Australia’s hard culture. Painstaking research by eminent scholars like Professors Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan has unearthed damning evidence of massacres of Aboriginal communities (men, women, children), unspeakable cruelty and enslavement, the stealing and exploitation of children, the rape of women, and the criminalisation of Aboriginal youths. The hard culture’s racism results in the “gap” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians continuing to widen. Most white Australians just don’t care. While the white Australia policy began to disappear from the statutes from the 1960s (it was finally disposed of by the Whitlam government), it continues festering in the darker interstices of Australia’s hard culture.

This is starkly on show in the thinking of the Grim Reaper of Australian politics, Peter Dutton. Consider: his spiteful refusal to support Kevin Rudd’s apology to Indigenous Australians (especially the Stolen Generation); his hysterical warning about “African gangs” which he claimed were frightening Melbourne’s restaurant goers; his demands that white refugee farmers from South Africa be allowed to settle in Australia, simply on the grounds that they were white; his insistence that the asylum seekers released from illegal detention by the High Court were dangerous criminals; and his ruthless campaigning against the Voice to Parliament. The Grim Reaper and most of his Coalition colleagues are bound together by the crimson thread of racism, egregiously reproducing the prejudices of their political ancestor, Henry Parkes.

But it’s not just the conservatives who have a racist albatross around their red necks. The brutal treatment of asylum seekers desperately fleeing to Australia by boat has been equally deployed by both major parties with an identical disregard for human rights, much less for any compassion or basic decency. In government, Labor has shown itself to be as racist as the rest of them. The recent attempt by the Albanese government to railroad legislation through the parliament to allow it to deport asylum seekers is a case in point. The cynicism of the Coalition’s current opposition to the legislation (they will end up passing it eventually) was only leavened by the effectiveness of the ethically astute crossbench MPs.

The most glaring recent evidence of the crimson thread of racism binding Australia’s hard culture is the difference in treatment of refugees fleeing from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and from the Israeli invasion of Gaza. In both cases the invaders have made a mockery of international law. Their indiscriminate bombings, drone attacks, and their ruthless killing of women, men, and children show how utterly destructive contemporary warfare has become. It demonstrates how the twentieth century’s record of continuous warfare (two World Wars, the Cold War, numerous “hot” wars) is being superseded by the twenty-first century’s abject decline into war-mongering on a scale once not thought possible.

It is the case that Ukrainian refugees fleeing from the barbarousness of the Russians are being received into Australia. This humane, if carefully calibrated, response is to be welcomed. They only quibble with this response is that too few Ukrainian refugees are being given visas to come here. We should be making it possible for many more to come, either to stay until hostilities cease, or to settle permanently.

But sadly, the picture is very different when it comes to Palestinian refugees fleeing from the unspeakable violence Israel is perpetrating on the people of Gaza. Far fewer of them have been granted visas, and the time they have to wait for a response to their visa applications is far too long. Why is it so? Apart from an inadequately resourced bureaucracy and bumbling politicians, a large part of the answer has to do with the crimson thread of racism that snakes its way across the cultural landscape of Australia. The skin colour of most Palestinians is different to that of white Ukrainians.

The same racist attitude to refugees is evident in the cruel indifference Australian governments, media and voters have demonstrated towards the appalling conditions being endured by Rohingya refugees from Rakhine state in Myanmar. As victims of genocidal actions by the Myanmar military – one of the most evil organisations on the globe today – many Rohingya people fled to Bangladesh where the authorities have confined them in disgusting conditions every bit as horrifying as those under which the people of Gaza are presently suffering.

Recently a boat load of despairing Rohingya refugees sank off the coat of Indonesia. Many of them drowned, and a few of them were rescued. It was believed that they were trying to reach Australia to claim asylum. Had they done so, they would have immediately been shipped off to the Australian gulag on Nauru. Had they been white, they very likely would have been given temporary visas at the very least. Our timorous government has no compassion; it represents the racist indifference of the majority of citizens who voted for them.

As the result of the Voice to Parliament made painfully clear, some two thirds of Australian voters are either consciously or unconsciously racist. The crimson thread of racism draws them tightly together. Of the four pillars of Australia’s hard culture – populism, masculinism, secularism, racism – the last of these, racism, is arguably the most invidious. Too many white Australians today, and not a few non-white Australians, are sickeningly complacent about a racist tradition originally articulated by the white supremacist Henry Parkes.

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