Monday, December 12, 2005

Oz Race Riots (Thoughts) + Monaga on Belafonte's Pad

Race and nation, nation and race: human history is a minefield full of the horrors of this particular nexus, particularly since the era of the European Enlightenment. While Nazi Germany is the worst example most people would immediately cite, the nationalism and racial segregation of the pre-Civil War and Jim Crow US, apartheid South Africa, the post-Yugoslavia southern Balkans, the Armenian genocide in Turkey and mass slaughters in Rwanda also provide negative examples.

One more recent example not involving slaughter but the alienation and isolation of a large minority defined as somehow not being part of the situation in France, to give one very recent example, has returned to a low boil, Australia, which has its own very troubled history of racism, racial segregation and white supremacy, now finds itself on the front burner as racially and nationalistically inflected riots have hit the Cronulla Beach area of south Sydney.

According to a BBC News report, "Racial Violence Erupts in Sydney," a week ago, several young men of "Arabic and Mediterranean backgrounds," a truly vague description if there ever was one--who may or may not have been part of a gang--were playing sports on the beach, and when some locals at Cronulla Beach complained to volunteer lifeguards, who then intervened, the "Arabic and Mediterranean" men "assaulted" them. Newscasters, on the TV and radio supposedly then whipped up latent nationalistic and racist fervor among white residents (which I gather do not include people of European Mediterranean ancestry, such as Greeks, Italians, Albanians, etc.) of the area and other parts of the Sydney region for a good week; at the same time, some white protesters supposedly also used cellphones and text messaging technology to organize mobs. In response, thousands of white youths, some of them intoxicated (with alcohol, not just racist animus and nationalist pride), converged on Cronulla and began violently attacking people--anyone--of apparent Arab, Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean backgrounds.

The white rioters, who included some Neo-Nazi and white nationalist supremacist elements, pelted police with beer cans and bottles, injuring several people. Later the violence spread to other areas: in South Sydney a man was stabbed in the back, while in Maroubra, men armed with baseball bats attacked cars. (The BBC News report doesn't give racial breakdowns on who attacked whom, though I understand the absence of referents to be an example of normative journalistic practices, wherein "white" isn't mentioned since it's presumed or assumed; meanwhile the Australian papers indicate the opposing groups of Lebanese and white rioters were involved in the second night of conflicts.) Unsurprisingly, local authorities considered the attacks to be isolated and extraordinary, not "Australian":

Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Goodwin said innocent people had been targeted.

"The behaviour that's been seen down here at Cronulla today is nothing short of disgusting and disgraceful," he said. "It's certainly not the Australian way."

The area's Mayor, Kevin Schreiber, accused the mob of looking for a fight.

"As mayor and as a resident of Cronulla, I'm devastated by what has occurred on our beachfront," he said.

"It is the actions of a few, but let's not kid ourselves that people didn't come from far and wide to participate."

Keysar Trad, Islamic Friendship Association of Australia noted that "sections of the media took this issue far too far, and one can only surmise that the way these issues was dealt with on talk-back radio amounts to incitement." Sound familiar?

The police, who were able to get some of the people being attacked to safety or to medical facilities, made scores of arrests.

This wasn't the end of the situation, however. Riots occurred again last night, with more rampaging youths from outside the Cronulla area arriving and destroying cars and local shops. Nearby areas such as Caringbah and Brighton-le-Sands (which could be the name of a Paris suburb) also were the sites of vandalism and violence. In response, police in the area stepped up their patrols, and were carefully watching massing groups in other neighboring districts. Australia's rightist Prime Minister, John Howard, finally spoke out, condemning the violence. Despite evidence to the contrary, he duly pointed out that Australians were not racist. Interestingly enough, in the second BBC News article, the "Arabic and Mediterranean" young men whose actions allegedly set off the social tinderbox were now described as being of "Middle Eastern origin," betraying a rather larger conceptual slippage (and a longstanding Western European-North European and British racial and ethnic bias).

At the heart of the matter, it seems that the sorts of social and political disaffection that are so apparent among Arab and non-Arab African native and immigrant young people in France and other countries also are at issue in Australia. Although the country's history and decades of socialist government and secularism have inculcated most Australians with a progressive views on economic issues and social views often to the left of the United States, and although the country has, like Canada, become increasingly racially and ethnically diverse over the last quarter-century, the critical issues of nationalism and racism, which have been features of Australian history since the country's founding, endure. As is well known, Australia, in its process of nation-building, instituted some of the most severe racially supremacist social policies of any of Britain's colonies; Australia officially had a White Australia immigration policy in effect until 1973. The white ruler's social and cultural attacks, amounting at times to crimes against humanity, against indigenous Aboriginal populations for hundreds of years. Aborigines saw their land seized, were slaughtered and segregated, while Aboriginal children were abducted from their families and raised by whites. The Australian government did finally include Aborigines as members of the nation in 1967, and many years later apologized for its crimes, but the cultural and psychic trauma were tremendous and still resonate throughout the society.

The historical echoes and residue of Australia's racial-nationalist project obviously continue. On Steve Gilliard's News Blog, in a post entitled "White Australia Returns," an Australian commentator, One Salient Oversight, discusses and contextualizes the furor, addressing the failed process of multicultural exchange and education, which he attributes in part to the shift in government priorities and ideology when the Howard government took over and in part to a certain kind of liberal societal myopia, particular among the governing classes in Australia (which is far more economically and socially progressive than the United States in many ways), for the problems now besetting south Sydney.

Sydney's Morning Herald and Melbourne's The Age newspaper discuss the violence and societal crisis at length. Among the articles are fuller coverage of the second day of riots; witnesses' accounts of the attackers; the Australian Patriot League's racist nationalism; radio shock jock Alan Jones's glee in helping to stir up the trouble; white nationalists' pride in their role in the maelstrom; attempts to make sense, unironically I suppose, of a "black day"; the roles that 9/11, the Bali bombing and "Tampa" may have played in the attacks; the (often racist) commentary of Cronulla locals; Lebanese-Australians' expressions of alienation and rage; and Melbourne's own concerns about similar potential problems.

Additional thoughts: When I was growing up, I went to Catholic school with a few people of Lebanese ancestry--or they were of mixed Lebanese and European ancestry. As far as I remember, they considered themselves "white," at least as far as I could tell. I don't recall whether they thought of themselves as white "ethnics"--even though all people are "ethnics" of some sort. Perhaps they thought of themselves as white given the racial contexts of the particular place where I grew up (the Midwest), where racial issues were often binaristic and polarized (so that Asians and Latinos often had to choose sides) and the century-long history of Lebanese immigration and assimilation. But perhaps my perspective was skewed, and perhaps most Lebanese or other Arabs in St. Louis or elsewhere didn't think of themselves as "white." Did St. Louis native Naomi Shihab Nye's father, who was Palestinian, think of himself as white? (I know that in her poem "Blood," he evokes him speaking of how an "Arab" acted.) Did he live as a white person in St. Louis, at a time when the city's facilities were racially segregated? Did she, growing up?

I do know that the history of racial and racial identity formation in the US and elsewhere is complex, and that, as I note above, Lebanese--and other Arab--immigration to America began more than century ago. In fact, in some places the Lebanese served as racial "middlemen," so to speak, between Anglo whites and black people. This was the case in Washington, DC, in parts of the South (like New Orleans), in Chicago, and elsewhere. Writer Breena Clarke, for example, includes a Lebanese vendor in her tragic, beautiful novel of early 20th century Black DC, River, Cross My Heart. Lebanese immigrants have occupied a similar economic and political role across the globe; I'm familiar with similar scenarios in parts of Latin America (especially Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, etc.) and Africa (Liberia, for example). Do Lebanese-Brazilians consider themselves "white"? Do the majority in countries like Ecuador or Mexico consider themselves "white"? (Several of Mexico's richest people are of Lebanese ancestry, I believe.) How much do longstanding racial hierarchies, ideologies of whiteness, and structures and practices of white supremacy in these countries, as in the US or Australia, factor in?

I'm not especially familiar with the history of Lebanese and other Arab ethnic-national groups' self-identification and possible politicization as "Arab" in the US, though I wonder whether this increased after the 1967 (?) changes in the immigration laws, the Civil Rights push of the 1950s and 1960s, and the late 60s Black Power and Black Pride movements, which led to greater ethnic and nationalist self-awareness, pride and identification among white Americans. I also wonder when large-scale Lebanese immigration to Australia began. The reports from Australia make it seem as if the Lebanese and other Middle Easterners were not assimilated or even integrated, really; is this mostly the case in Australia? Thinking about the recent uprisings in France, and the historical links between that country and Lebanon, my impression is that people of Lebanese ancestry in France, especially the Christians, would not feel isolated and marginalized in the same ways as the immigrants from and native-born children of immigrants from France's former colonies in Africa, such as Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Mali, and so on. But is this the case?

MaloufThere are probably very good books on this topic, so if anyone can recommend them, I'd love to check them out. I also just remembered that one of Australia's major writers, and a perennial Nobel candidate, is David Malouf, whose name bears witness to the fact that he's of Arab ancestry. I believe his father was Lebanese. I assume he's an assimilated Australian--though I have no idea about his self-described racial or ethnic identity or identifications. Is he product of prior generations of Lebanese-descended Australians who did integrate and assimilate? What has changed? What was lost? I've only read a few of Malouf's works (An Imaginary Life, about Ovid; The Great World, about Australians imprisoned by the Japanese; and the magisterial Remembering Babylon, about Scottish immigrants in North Australia who must deal with a new arrival). From what I recall they didn't especially focus on Lebanese-Australians or Arab-Australians. Are there other writers, peers of his or younger writers, who've focused on this community?

As has been asked in the last few weeks of France, where does Australia go from here?


Monaga's Blog features a short entry on the pending sale of artist and activist Harry Belafonte's multimillion-dollar Upper West Side apartment and how it's linked to one of the most important, notorious, and notoriously racist figures in Dominican history. As often with the great posts on Monaga, many of the comments are worth checking out too.