Last year Paul Norton wrote with some sadness and much asperity “Is David Burchell brain-dead?”
Referring to the particular column which prompted the post, Paul contrasted ex-communist Burchell’s stance with the positions taken by anti-communist Robert Manne thusly:
David Burchell’s column, by contrast, repeatedly trivialises left-liberal positions on those issues and complacently denigrates those who hold such views.
Well, Burchell appears to be at it again, holding up as if it is an entirely new concept that the panoply of social ills afflicting many indigenous communities are more a product of poverty than of racism per se, because many of the same problems afflict the non-indigenous urban poor.
It’s true that some remote Aboriginal communities, caught in a morass of isolation, neglect and joblessness, have sunk to levels of dysfunction unknown to white Australians.
Yet dysfunction is remarkably colour-blind. If, as we did until relatively recently, you put white families, preselected for their turbulent family histories, into welfare ghettoes on the fringes of the main cities, they will struggle to hold their lives together, too. And then, exactly like indigenous families, they will weave narratives of defeat and despair to console them for their marginality.
Unlike Burchell, I’m not a literary academic writing in the area of public policy, and have only a few undergraduate course credits in social studies from the early 80s under my belt, yet I’d be amazed if he could point to one, single, solitary social studies course which did not identify poverty as the primary component of social disadvantage in blackfella communities here in Australia (as well as in communities of colour amongst our immigrant population and in other nations as well). That correlation with poverty, and particularly de facto ghettoised poverty, has never been in contention. The question he studiously avoids is – why is there such a strong correlation in so many countries between socioeconomic class and the melanin content of one’s skin?
Of course, the reason he frames his column in this manner is to avoid addressing racism while tossing some sparkle over the idea that social welfare programs should treat all poverty equally i.e. don’t give indigenous Australians any more aid than any other poor Australian receives. In doing so Burchell’s doing exactly the same two-step that Paul identified above: trivialising the poverty effect on indigenous people (paying lip-service to the long-standing anthropological observation that racism intersects with poverty to generate extra layers of discrimination and lost opportunity), while simultaneously denigrating those views as holding up Aboriginal communities as suffering “mysterious spiritual ailments”.
There’s nothing mysterious about the notion that living surrounded by a miasma of racist socialisation is a special emotional burden that affects the mental health of indigenous Australians more than any other group in our country. There’s also nothing inherently unequal with spending extra public money targeting a social group with the poorest health outcomes and the lowest levels of literacy in the country: surely the whole idea of a social security program is that the neediest get the most, not that everyone gets the same.
The question of whether the non-indigenous poor should get more than they currently do is separate. The question of whether any initiatives that are successful in addressing certain indigenous community dysfunctions should be extended to non-indigenous communities is also separate (and certainly should be kept so until we see whether mooted programs like sequestering welfare payments actually do effectively address dysfunctions in any indigenous communities, leaving aside the ethics of trialling these untested approaches in the most vulnerable communities as irrelevant in the face of a fait accompli).
At least Burchell acknowledges that there might just be a problem in evaluating the effectiveness of such measures (what factors will be measured, exactly?) to see whether they are “working” or not. But then, just in case anyone was in any doubt about the wafting fug of brain-deadness, he goes for this pearler:
Until relatively recently, social policy professionals liked to maintain a fiction that white and black communities lived in different moral universes. At its worst this approach became, to borrow a phrase from French essayist Bernard-Henri Levy, the “racism of the anti-racists”.
White communities, it was said, had a thing called domestic violence, which sprang from the determination of white men to keep their wives subservient to them.
Black communities, on the other hand, had something called family violence. This, according to the official narrative, sprang out of a heritage of white racism and colonial dispossession, and was no reflection on Aboriginal men themselves.
As a result, black domestic violence was rarely talked about, or even acknowledged, until recently. Indeed, the main statistical report on violence against women in Australia, published back in 1996, does not even contain the words Aboriginal or indigenous.
In reality, as is now haltingly being acknowledged, domestic violence is much the same phenomenon in black and white communities. In both cases a sense of powerlessness on the part of individual men is often perversely allied to a need to impose power on their families.
Apart from many blank assertions in the quoted section above about the alleged “official narrative”, note the huge ambit claim: apparently only poor people have domestically abusive relationships on David Burchell’s planet. Domestic violence initiated by anyone other than socially powerless men is seemingly non-existent. Apart from the many women who have escaped abusive relationships with men holding status positions in our society, I suspect a few Male Rights advocates would object to male victims of domestic violence being made invisible as well. Isolation in manicured suburbia can hide just as many nasty secrets from the Average Australian Urban Voter as remoteness in regional districts has done.
The claim that black domestic violence against women has been hardly acknowledged until recently is a flat out untruth if he is still speaking of social policy professionals. That domestic and sexual violence in some indigenous communities has not previously been widely publicised in the mainstream media is not the same thing at all as it not being acknowledged by social policy professionals (note the predecessors to the Little Children Are Sacred report and how little public ripple they had), and Burchell must know this full well.
Burchell says that a 1996 report does not contain the words Aboriginal or indigenous – why does that make me wonder whether he actually read the report instead of just doing a word search on it? I can’t find the full report online myself, only a summary, so I can’t check Burchell’s claim. Still, seeing that the study was performed in 1996 and released in 1997 on the watch of the government that responded to Paul Memmott’s Violence in Indigenous Communities report (submitted in 1999) with a 2001 press release and a subsequent announcement by John Howard personally of $1 million plan to address “petrol sniffing in the NT” without using the words indigenous or Aboriginal once, perhaps it’s not actually the social policy professionals’ fault that those words aren’t in the published version of the 1996 Women’s Safety Australia report.
However, it’s trivially easy to note that more recent reports refer to indigenous communities when discussing intimate partner violence and violence against children all the time: perhaps rather than left-liberals being blind to these figures indicating higher-risk, they are in fact the people who first brought attention to them, maybe to the point where an even more arguable scenario than Burchell’s blind left-liberals is one where the Howard government decided that if it couldn’t bury the figures any longer they might as well make political capital from them?
Of course, the same social-policy academics also produced this report in 2000 (building on plenty of earlier work) noting that domestic violence in all rural and remote communities, whether indigenous or not, is significantly higher than the Australian norm, which Burchell fails to mention either.
In his eagerness to dismiss the importance of racial identity and resultant discrimination as an integral part of the dysfunction of certain indigenous communities, and thus the crucial importance of accounting for racial identity in any process purported to address that dysfunction, Burchell has significantly trivialised every issue he’s highlighted in this column. Shame on him.