Is Australia racist?

June 8th, 200912:41 pm @

Lord knows what were they thinking when they asked me along

India has been asking that question a lot lately in the wake of attacks on students in Melbourne. It’s a tough topic that requires a serious debate – unfortunately much of the coverage in India has, to date, bordered on the hysterical and the “racist” tag has been thrown around with gay abandon. Unfortunately, calling “racist” as part of a knee-jerk reaction clouds the issue and can be positively counter-productive.

So it was nice to join a rational discussion on the topic as part the panel on NDTV’s We The People programme. Luckily, I wasn’t the only Aussie on board. Australia’s High Commissioner to India, John McCarthy, was there to take most of the heat. I did feel for him as question after question started with: “Mr High Commissioner, I’d like to ask you . . .” I was tempted to jump in a few times and help out, but I figured that (a) the Cambridge-educated diplomat was far more qualified than I was to answer the questions and (b) it’s what he gets paid to do.

Asked how I felt about Australia being labelled “racist” following the attacks, I gave the only answer I could: embarrassed. Who wouldn’t be? But the series of attacks – and their reporting – needs a deeper analysis than merely jumping on the racism hysteria bandwagon. Many are asking why more Indian students are being attacked. It’s a fair enough question. The more simplistic answers are race-based: Australians are racist or in times of economic stress people attack migrants because they’re “taking locals’ jobs”.

The more intelligent answers look at the number of Indian students studying in Australia – it’s jumped enormously in the past few years – and the areas in which they live: poor, disadvantaged suburbs where crime rates are high. It does stand to reason that if you pump more Indian students into areas with high crime rates, they’re increasingly likely to be victims of crime. Dealing with that crime and ensuring the safety of all foreign students are the real issues.

Indeed, Melbourne authorities have been struggling with crime and violence for longer than the Indian media has been interested in the topic. I lived in the southern city for two years and it’s an ugly place on Friday and Saturday nights when 19-year-olds are out on a bender and spoiling for a fight.

That’s not to say racism doesn’t exist in Australia – it clearly does – or that racism didn’t play a part in any of the deplorable attacks on Indian students – it may well have. What it does say is that Melbourne has a crime problem that it needs to deal with – fast. And the educational institutions who make so much money off the backs of foreign students need to show a greater duty of care to their overseas guests.

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