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‘Standout’ rise in number of Australians reporting racism as a ‘very big’ problem

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Last year, 40 per cent of people saw racism as a ‘very big’ problem. In 2021, that figure has jumped to 60 per cent.

“That is quite a standout finding because we don’t normally find that level of shift on a general question such as racism,” the report’s author, Emeritus Professor Andrew Markus told SBS News.      

But not everyone is surprised.

Gary Zhai says he has reported numerous instances of racism to police.

Source: Supplied/Gary Zhai

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Gary Zhai came to Brisbane from China to pursue his PhD and said a neighbour has been accosting him since the start of 2020.

She has addressed him using a racial slur that has been used to refer to a person of Chinese descent, he said. 

“She said, ‘… move your car. You’re a coronavirus carrier’. She called me that. ‘Go back to your home’. I was shocked.”

She said, ‘… move your car. You’re a coronavirus carrier’. She called me that.

– Gary Zhai, Brisbane

Mr Zhai has reported 35 alleged incidents to police so far, including abuse, trespassing, damage to his car and racial discrimination, but says little has been done in response.

“Racism has always been in Australia. It was there pre-COVID,” said chair of the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network Carmel Guerra.

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“Like so many things, COVID has brought it to the forefront which means we need to do something about it because it’s much more visible and people are talking about it,” she said.

Positive attitudes towards immigration and multiculturalism

Despite the heightened concern, the survey suggests xenophobic and racist attitudes are not the majority.

When respondents were asked if immigrants are generally good for Australia’s economy, 86 per cent agreed, compared to a 76 per cent endorsement in 2019.

“Migrants and refugees flourish in this country and we contribute enormously,” said Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA) chair Mary Patetsos.

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“There are pockets and individuals that make that difficult sometimes because they are racist towards certain groups and certain other individuals, and there are elements of, I think, systemic and structural disadvantage where the lack of networks for migrant communities means that they don’t get as much attention, in recruitment for instance,” she said.

When asked if multiculturalism has been good for Australia, 89 per cent of survey participants agreed.

“The finding is that with regard to feelings of xenophobia, racism and bigotry, while the majority perceives that [it] is a problem in Australia … the majority does not buy into those negative attitudes,” Professor Markus said.

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What’s driving the concern?

Karen Farquharson is a professor of sociology at the University of Melbourne and says there could be several factors involved. 

“Because the Black Lives Matter movement came to Australia, because there’s been a great deal of attention to Aboriginal deaths in custody … and also because of the anti-Asian racism around COVID,” she said.

“Anecdotally we’ve heard of people being harassed on the street that wouldn’t have been harassed on the street before COVID … All of those things coming together I think are probably contributing to the increase but 20 per cent, I think, is a really big jump.”

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The study found 34 per cent of those from non-English speaking backgrounds reported higher levels of discrimination compared to 11 per cent of people born in Australia and 12 per cent of those born overseas in an English-speaking country.

“We are seeing increased numbers of people who contact us knowing that what they’re experiencing is improper and they want to do something about it,” said Ms Patetsos.

“They feel very hurt about it and are quite scared, so they are seeking information and also want a sympathetic ear.”

Negative attitudes towards certain groups

The survey refers to a paradoxical ‘hierarchy of racial preference’.

Despite positive attitudes towards multiculturalism and immigration, when asked if people had positive, negative or neutral feelings towards different national groups, the report found a higher level of negative opinion towards Australians of Iraqi, Chinese and Sudanese descent.

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Forty-two per cent of respondents felt ‘very negative’ or ‘somewhat negative’ towards Iraqi Australians, while 43 per cent held negative views towards Chinese people in Australia and 46 per cent towards people of Sudanese descent.

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“In terms of racial or ethnic hierarchy, it’s very clearly there … More negative attitudes towards Middle Eastern and Asian Australians,” Professor Markus said.

“But the proportions have not become more negative over the course of the pandemic,” he said.

Compared to last year, the negative responses decreased by one per cent for Chinese Australians, six per cent for Indian Australians, seven per cent for Lebanese Australians and 10 per cent for Sudanese Australians.

“We can distinguish that these are attitudes – strongly racist and xenophobic attitudes – that are held by minorities, and as far as our survey indicates, those minorities are actually shrinking rather than growing,” Professor Markus said.

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