Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health

Race and Racism in Australia.

Race as a social construct came into being alongside capitalism.  When European colonists arrived in Australian with their ethnocentric ideology, racist foundations became the building blocks upon which inequity and institutions were built. As a result, the trauma and inequality created for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders by colonialism has, and continues to, impact detrimentally on their health and well-being despite Governments expending large sums of money on programs and services to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous outcomes in relation to health. The colonialist mentality of racism in Australia towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is maintained by three main forms of racism; institutionalised, interpersonal and internalised. Institutionalised racism, particularly within the health system, is creating a plethora of inequity issues which are resulting in high mortality rates amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The publication of The Origin of Species, written by biologist and philosopher Charles Darwin in 1859, led to eugenics, phrenology, ethnocentricity and Social Darwinism, and subsequently race and racism began.  Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection proposed that differences between human beings, such as skin colour, equated to different races of human beings existing and therefore those who did not have the same attributes as Europeans were classified as being of a different species, or race (Hollinsworth 2006, p.32). His theory added scientific credence to, and fueled the fire of, the political, social and medical discourses being espoused by Herbert Spencer, an English sociologist, biologist and prominent liberal political theorist (Hollinsworth 2006, p.32). Darwin’s theory led to Social Darwinism being established within European society (Hollinsworth 2006, p.32). Race and racism was therefore founded on the politics of eugenics and the medical and political discourses which spread globally during the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century (Bastos, Harnois & Paradies 2016, p.209). Eugenics is the science of controlling breeding within populations so there is an increasing manifestation of the required genetic characteristics (Galton 1904, p.1). Indigenous Australians were seen by European colonists to be situated at the very bottom of a hierarchical ladder which Europeans existed at the summit of (Germov & Poole 2007, p. 284). This mentality was known as ethnocentricity which is when a belief exists that your own culture or ethnic group is superior to another (Bizumic & Duckitt 2012, p.887). It was also seen by Europeans that Indigenous people were inferior biologically due to the pseudo-scientific theory of phrenology which equated skull size and shape as being able to determine a person’s character (Germov & Poole 2007, p. 284).  With eugenics, phrenology and ethnocentricity firmly implanted in the minds of the colonists who invaded Australia, it takes little sociological imagination to understand why European colonists behaved as they did towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

When the invasion of Australia by the British occurred in 1770 they brought with them fixed mindsets of capitalism and Social Darwinism and the colonisation of Australia began. Colonialism relates to a system being implemented whereby an individual or group of individuals seek to dominate others (Horvath 1972, p.46). Sociological theorist Pierre Bourdieu referred to colonialism as a forceful system of oppression based on racist beliefs which seeks to reorganise social kinships and at the same time establish a crossbred society (Go 2013, p. 49).Colonialism is also a powerful and aggressive action taken by people to possess land and exploit it, along with the Indigenous people who occupy that land, with no regard to the original inhabitants, their culture or their existing laws (Horvath 1972, p. 46). Karl Marx believed this type of domination occurs out of an economic basis and is a symptom of capitalism (Horvath 1972, p.46). Horvath states colonisation creates and perpetuates social injustice (Horvath 1972, p.46). Colonists were of the fear-based view that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were savages who were dangerous, yet childlike (Hollinsworth 2006, p.33).As such, great measures to establish and maintain superior paternalistic power and control over Indigenous Australians began because of unconsciously based scientific racist beliefs (Hollinsworth 2006, p. 34). This fear-based power and control continued to have a stronghold in Australia into the later part of last century (Hollinsworth 2006, p. 34). Because of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Indigenous Australians were seen to be a separate race of people who colonists believed were destined to die out anyway (Hollinsworth 2006, p. 35).It was often the situation that anyone who protested the horrendous treatment Indigenous people received whilst colonisation was occurring, were met with rebuttal (Hollinsworth 2006, p. 35).It was also seen to be worthy of celebration by colonists, not lamentation, that the extinction of an inferior race was occurring, with their help (Hollinsworth 2006, p. 35).  The attempted assimilation which occurred of trying to change the genetics of Indigenous Australians was a direct result of eugenics. It was these underlying beliefs colonisers held which established Australia’s institutions and created the systemic racism which still exists within those institutions today.

Institutionalised racism lays at the core of all of Australia’s systems and is closely linked with capitalism. Race and racism in Australia can be understood as being maintained institutionally when looked at through the sociological lens of Foucault’s theory that governmental control occurs via the power maintained in institutional systems, which then becomes internalised normality within society (Germov & Poole 2007, p. 287).From a Marxists perspective Governments would not want to change the existing institutionalised racism because to do so would alter the balance of power which would no longer serve the interests of capitalism (Germov & Poole 2007, p. 287).  Racism is defined as a discriminatory dispersal of chances, assistance or capital implemented by the dominant culture over minority groups of different race or ethnicity (Paradies, 2018, 0.42 – 1.44). Institutionalised racism has been defined as having its basis in historical social scenarios which continues due to frameworks that preserve prior discriminations (Jones 2001, p.1212). Institutionalised racism is often seen to be legalised and lays within the policies and practices of institutions, whilst also being apparent when procrastination occurs, instead of action, in relation to needs not being met (Jones 2001, p.1212). Evidence shows that racism, whilst not a set target in the Close the Gap Report 2008 (Parliament of Australia undated, p. n/a), has been recognised by the Federal Government in the Close the Gap Report Review 2018 (Australian Human Rights Commission 2018, p.3) and in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan 2013-2023 (Australian Government Department of Health 2013, p.8). Due to institutionalised racism, which has become the societal norm, many Australians do not see their unconsciously conditioned biases perpetuate not only the racism the country’s systems were built on, but also that they serve to maintain the inequality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians which began over two hundred years ago.

Interpersonal racism, along with institutionalised racism and deficit discourses within politics and the media are having an adverse effect on the mental and physical health of Indigenous Australians. Interpersonal racism can be conscious or unconscious and appears in society by way of stereotyping, lack of service, ignoring, lack of respect and devaluation (Jones 2001, p.1213).Institutionalised racism, combined with interpersonal racism lead to internalised racism, which involves taking on the limiting beliefs about oneself which have been projected by the dominant culture onto the minority group (Jones 2001, p. 1213).Internalised racism can also lead to a lack of self-worth, lack of belief in peers and in one’s self (Jones 2001, p. 1213).  The general dominant political and media discourse in Australia is increasing the inequality many minority groups encounter from the dominant culture (Hollinsworth 2006, p. 246). Since 1996, when the Howard Government came into power, there has been a steadily growing manufactured erosion of social justice and equal rights occurring in Australia via an official discourse being implemented through laws based on fear and envy (Hollinsworth 2006, p 246). This stance will only lead to increasing inequality, endangering existing social structures and possibly result in an increase in violence occurring (Hollinsworth 2006, p. 246). Combined with these deficit discourses created by non-indigenous media and politicians in Australia towards Indigenous Australians, racism has been found to be detrimental to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders health as they all impact adversely psychologically, emotionally and in relation to their overall social wellbeing.

Perceptions of race and racism within Australian have been shown, through a variety of micro and macro level methods, to reveal health care barriers exist for Indigenous Australians which do not exist for non-Indigenous Australians. Systemic racism not only has detrimental outcomes such as depression, suicide, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder for Indigenous Australians, but it also creates significant economic impacts on society (Paradies 2016, p.1). In 2016 it was estimated that racial discrimination cost the Australian economy approximately 37.9 billion dollars per annum (Paradies 2016, p.1). A study conducted during 2012 and 2013 revealed thirty percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people suffer from extreme psychological and emotional occurrences of depression or anxiety (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2015, p. 71). This figure is extraordinarily high when one considers that Indigenous Australians make up only three percent of the national population (Bastos, Harnois & Paradies 2016, p.211). Further, it was revealed in 2012 that Indigenous Australians experience higher rates of suicide than non-Indigenous Australians with deaths being predominantly higher for males between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012, p. n/a). The statistics of deaths based on a scale of one hundred thousand per population for this age group show that non-Indigenous male deaths by suicide peak at twenty percent and Indigenous males peak at ninety percent (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012, p. n/a). In 2014 a General Social Survey was conducted to determine the degree racial discrimination intersects with other areas of discrimination such as, gender, sexuality, class and age within Australia, in creating access barriers to health care (Bastos, Harnois & Paradies 2016, p.209). The results concluded perceived racism was a major factor creating a barrier in accessing health care, particularly mental health (Bastos, Harnois & Paradies 2016, p.216). There is ample available research which indicates that the social construct of race is responsible for the ongoing high mortality rates occurring within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Racism in its various forms is not only creating barriers to accessing health care but creating ongoing psychological and emotional distress for a large percentage of Indigenous Australians.

According to sociologists, Australia has moved into a time of post-modernity and post-colonialism, but the evidence clearly shows the social construct of race and the racism which stems from it continues to be maintained by way of institutionalised racism. Post-colonialism came into being late in the twentieth century (Eagleton 2011, p. 222).It is defined as a time when physical violence is no longer being perpetrated to take land (Hollinsworth 2006, p.246). This may be the situation; however, it appears that a new form of racism has taken the place of the past brutal dispossession, assimilation and genocide. Known as new racism, this form revolves around the structure and appearance of racism in relation to pecuniary and socio-traditional variances which exist between the overriding and minority cultures within a country (Germov & Poole 2007, p. 287).Post-colonialism studies look at the relationships between oppressors and oppressed existing in countries that have been colonised (Germov & Poole 2007, p. 287).Indigenous identity, which post-colonialism also concerns itself with, has been revealed via various institutional policies to have been manipulated to implement and validate dominant policies (Germov & Poole 2007, p. 288).Colonialism was rooted in racism and whilst many perceive both exist historically and are no longer apparent, both still exist within capitalism as the Western thinking of those in power continues to be based on the taking of other people’s land who are not in positions to stop them (Jureidini & Poole 2003, p.246). It is in the continuation of institutionalised racism and subsequent racist policies and practices, by those in power within the Westernised political system, that inequity continues to grow and create an ever-widening gap between capitalist politicians and those who they deem to be inferior.

Race and racism are social constructs designed by the political upper class in Europe in the late 1800s based on ethnocentricity. Institutionalised racism has created discrimination, exploitation, distress and inter-generational trauma which is still impacting on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Whilst State and Federal Governments have spent voluminous sums of money on programs and services to bring about more equality between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians in relation to health, they have failed. Up until 2013 they did not recognise that systemic racism within Australian institutions is responsible for the lack of equity, agency, health issues, self-governance and self-determination Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been and still are experiencing.

Copyright: C. O’Connor, November 2018.

Reference List

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