Our lives are shaped by who we are and what we are and where we come from. What race or ethnic group we belong to determines our life chances in contemporary society. Ethnicity is the cultural background of a group of people who share a belief in common ancestry. According to Max Weber, ethnic groups are formed by colonisation and immigration. Ethnicity is something we all have but in Australia and in many parts of the world, ethnicity is often applied on minority groups to highlight dominant groups of people on the bases of physical appearance, race, origins or culture. Being part of a dominant group provides prestige, power and control over the running of societies. The term ethnic comes from ancient Greek to mean gentile or non Christians. It was also used to refer to ‘other people’, separating ‘us’ and ‘them’.
The definition of ethnicity changes over time and place. In the case of Australia and in many parts of the western world, the recognition of a dominant ethnic group is through their ‘whiteness’ of their appearance (Holmes at al 2007:144 – 154). ‘Whiteness’ played a central part in Australia’s history. The white Australia policy of 1902 paved the way to a white, democratic society for those who were allowed into the country to shared in the prosperity and discriminated against migrants who were regarded as ‘others’ based on their colour, race and ethnicity (Jakubowicz 2002:107). Anglo-Celtic individuals from countries like Australia, the United Kingdom and North America were considered white whereas other Europeans like the Greeks and the Italians were considered not as white as people from Anglo-Celtics origins but were whiter than the Asians (Holmes at el 2007: 159).
What ethnicity one belongs to does shape one’s life-chances in contemporary society. Life chance described by Max Weber is the opportunities available to people in society. Life opportunities are determined by social-class location including issues on health, education and employment (Holmes at al 2007:148). Ethnic minorities are often disadvantaged through being discriminated against at work, when looking for accommodation, health services and through various levels of law and order (Bilton et al 2002:186).
The constant racial discrimination in the workforce limits employment opportunities. A study undertook in 1977 showed that White British were more
likely to obtain employment compared to ethnic minorities. And that Asians with foreign sounding names were 30 per cent less likely to get jobs compared to Anglo-Saxon names. The study also found that people from other European countries like Greeks were less likely to be discriminated against compared to Asian minorities, suggesting that discrimination was based on race and not foreignness. This might have been a dated study, but its results are still applicable as similar results were obtained when the research was repeated in 1983 and in 1993 (Bilton 2002:174-175).
Discrimination does not stop there. Racial inequality is also found when racial minorities try to find housing. According to the National Forum on Affordable Housing’s Fair Housing Trends report, about 3.7 million cases of discrimination occurred in the housing sector (Summit on Racism: 2005). Norman Ginsberg identifies that discrimination in the housing sector occurs at three different levels. The first is individual or subjective racism where individual landlords, estate agents or council officer discriminate against ethnic minorities. An example of this is an experience a Greek Muslim friend had when she was renting a unit with her Indonesian friend in Camberwell. They were experiencing flea bites at their new unit and had asked the estate agent to do something about it. In response she was told whether it could be possible the fleas were because of the ‘garb’ (referring to her long Islamic headscarf) she was wearing.
The second is institutional racism. Institutional racism is a form of discrimination which occurs within a public or private sector such as the health services, corporations and the police force. The term was introduced during the time of political struggle and the black power movement in the 1960s (Murji 2007:843) to describe the collective failure of organisations to provide appropriate services to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin (Henry et al 2004:517). An example of this is how estate agents in America deliberately encourage individuals to certain neighbourhood to reflect their ethnicity.
The third form of discrimination in the housing sector is state racism. An example of state racism is the ‘segregation tax’ in America. African American homes are valued 30 per cent less per every dollar compared to White American homes. This is known as the ‘segregation tax’ (Summit on Racism: 2005). These three forms of discrimination usually occur together demonstrating that the issue of race and ethnicity determines one’s life opportunities and how people and their property are valued by local and private agencies.
This is evident in other areas like health and social services. Aboriginal health in Australia for example is consisted shocking and at the level of a Third World nation in a First World country (Siewert: 2006). Government policies have always been discriminatory whether rightfully or wrongfully, it has widened the gap between Aborigines and other Australian (Hughes 2007:181). The Aboriginal life expectancy is 21 years less for men and 19 years less for women compared to non-Aborigines (Henry et al 2004:517). Suicide rates among Aborigines were unknown before the arrival of the first fleet, but between 1996 and 2000 in Queensland, the suicide rates was 13.7 per 100 000 which is about 466 Aboriginal lives lost to suicide (Manne 2007: 36). Not as much is done to improve Aboriginal health compared to non Aboriginals due to institutional racism and a lack of leadership to improve Aboriginal health.
Institutional racism in this instance involves funding inequality, double standards and differences in how Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals are treated in hospital. For example, Aboriginals receive low cost nursing care compared to non-Aborigines who receive higher costing technological care. Overspending in the Derbarl Yerrigan Aboriginal Medical services (DYAMS) in Perth due to popularity of their services was dealt with funding cuts, whereas overspending in teaching hospitals by over 120 times more than DYAMS were given an extra 100 million to cover the cost. The lack of political leadership to deal with this inequality has led to a system of better health care for the rich only. For instance, the government’s private health insurance scheme of 30 per cent rebate for individuals who choose to take up private health insurance instead of relying on Medicare, the public healthcare could have been better spent by halving the rebate to improve healthcare for Aborigines and other minority groups (Henry et al 2004: 517).
Since the arrival of the First Fleet, Aboriginal health and wellbeing have deteriorated. They have moved from a lifestyle of hunting to drinking, spending on average 50 percent of their income on alcohol in the 1990s (Manne 2007: 36). The effects on their health were at a crisis point. Drunken brawls became a common sight and women and children were badly affected that police intervention were often necessary.
The affects of law and order on the ethnic minority in general plays a large role in life opportunities in the contemporary society. The role of the police and the law is no longer just to apprehend criminals who have committed a crime, but to also pre-emptively intervene in situations that might be deemed a threat to the community. This usually means an increased surveillance of the poor, the unemployed and minority groups who are considered the risk groups.
The increasing preoccupation of rise groups reinforces the police’s traditional role “of the front line agency in the management of the poor and the underclass”. This is evident in the use of ‘stop and search based on reasonable doubt’. Although this technique has shown to be ineffective in controlling criminality, it has been a means of harassing the poor and minority groups. According to Fitzgibbon, police racism sustains police culture providing the excuse of risk as a sufficient means for suspicion, which in turn focuses on the risk of ethnic minorities as the potential threat to the community (Fitzgibbon 2007:128-144).
The issue of inequality among ethnic minority is slowly changing especially after the murder of a black man, Stephen Lawrence in 1993 which sparked an inquiry into his death and police investigation. In 2000, the Race Relation Act was amended in the United Kingdom to try and protect minorities against discrimination and attacks, but according to Stuart Hall, this amendment has done little to improve the situation of ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom (Bilton et al 2002:168). A person’s race and ethnicity shapes one’s life-chances in contemporary society. It determines who is entitled to jobs and to what sort of occupation, it determines who gets better housing and health services and it determines whether the justice system is on your side. Racism whether it is subjective, institutional or state racism will continue to occur so long as individuals and co-operations actively choose not to act against it. For a society to develop and be just and democratic, racial discrimination must cease to occur for all individuals to have a fair go in life’s opportunities.
1)Bilton T, Bonnett K, Jones P, Sheard K, Stanworth M and Webster A (2002), “Race and Ethnicity” in Introductory Sociology, Palgrave Macmillan: 162-190.
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