[Viewpoint] Taming bigotry

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[Viewpoint] Taming bigotry

At a time when the horrific events in Norway remind us how much murderous bigotry there still is in the world, perhaps a story from the other side of it can restore a little optimism that some positive, historically significant, changes in attitude really are occurring.

Last month in Australia, a major-league football player was fined, suspended and - as a result of intensive negative coverage in the press - experienced profound public humiliation. What was unusual about the case, and the scale of the response, was his offense. It was not a thuggish tackle, abuse of the umpire or match-fixing in collusion with gamblers. It was just a taunting remark heard only by his opponent. But his opponent was Nigerian-born, and the remark was a racist insult.

Just a few days earlier, in an incident that also drew significant media attention and condemnation, a spectator hurling racial abuse at a Sudanese-born player was escorted from the ground and banned from attending future matches unless he undertook racism-awareness education.

Not many years ago, in Australia, as in most of the rest of the world, these kinds of incidents would have passed utterly unremarked and without redress. They were not serious - just part of the game, uttered in the heat of the gladiatorial contest on the field and the passionate partisan cheering in the stands.

A famous player of the 1990s said at the time, “I’d make a racist comment every week if I thought it would help win the game.” And spectators were no different: “Of course, I sing out ‘black bastard,’ but I don’t mean it. It’s just a way of letting out your feelings.” It seemed not to occur to anyone that the black players who were the subject of this abuse could possibly have rather different feelings about it.

And all of this was happening in a country that seemed, institutionally at least, to have put its racist past behind it. The notorious “White Australia” immigration policy was abandoned in the late 1960s, robust antidiscrimination legislation was enacted in the 1970s and innumerable efforts were made to remedy through land rights and social-justice programs the injustices experienced over many decades by indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Casual racism - disparaging remarks made about other ethnic and national groups around the workplace, or over the bar or the family dinner table (as I can well remember growing up in the 1950s) - had become much less prevalent in Australian private life, and certainly wholly absent from public life, by the 1990s. But sport was somehow different. There, it was just letting off steam, no different from cheering or booing; or it was a “legitimate” tactic, no different from needling an opponent by challenging his manhood.

That mood and behavior began to change with the action of a star Aboriginal Australian Rules footballer, Nicky Winmar, one of the very few then playing in the top professional league. In 1993, he had had enough. After a man-of-the-match performance, throughout which he had been racially taunted, he turned to the opposing team’s cheer squad, raised his top with one hand and pointed dramatically to his chest with the other.

The declaration was unequivocal: “I’m black, and I’m proud of it.” The demand for action generated by this incident, and by the highly publicized on-field abuse of another star Aboriginal player, Michael Long, two led the Australian Football League to introduce in 1995 a “Racial and Religious Vilification” code of conduct. The code combines a robust conciliation process with appropriate punitive measures and a strong educational program.

The code has been overwhelmingly successful in ridding Australian football of the on-field racism that made life miserable for most indigenous players, with the number of indigenous players at the elite level more than doubling over the last decade. It has since been embraced by every football competition in Australia, and has proved an influential model for other sports in Australia and throughout the world. For example, Australia’s reforms are reflected in the antiracism policies adopted in the last decade by the international football governing bodies, FIFA and UEFA (though in many cases the translation of policy into effective, enforceable action at the national level has left much to be desired).

For a long time, however, there has been doubt in Australia about how much real across-the-board commitment there was to the underlying message that racial vilification anywhere, anytime, by anyone, in any context, is simply unacceptable. There was considerable sentimental attachment toward Aboriginal sportsmen and women, and indeed toward Australia’s indigenous people generally - apparent in the outpouring of emotion, remarked worldwide, that accompanied Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s moving “Apology to the Stolen Generation” in 2008. But would this sentiment extend to those of African descent and to members of other ethnicities who were gradually becoming a more visible part of Australian life?

The evidence of the last few weeks is that history, at last, really has moved on. The revelation of the abuse of players of Sudanese and Nigerian origin generated a surge of genuine, visible, and tangible public repugnance - a very real sense that the perpetrators had shamed not only themselves, but also their country. For an Australian of my generation, that is a very new and hugely welcome experience. And there is every reason to hope and believe that our experience is gradually becoming universal.

*Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.
The writer, a former Australian foreign minister, is the chancellor of the Australian National University.

By Gareth Evans
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