Was 2017 the year of the white supremacist? A friend put this to me recently.
My answer is No. It would be indulgent despair to declare we’ve lost to racism. We haven’t. And we shouldn’t think we have.
But I admit: there has been something about 2017 that has tested our multiracial and multicultural society. It’s there in the zeitgeist. This year, across many countries, racism has gained a new credibility and potency. Right-wing nationalism has gathered momentum. White supremacist movements have surged.
This has been most pronounced on either side of the Atlantic. In the US, the first year of the Trump presidency spawned the racial violence of Charlottesville. In Europe, far-right political forces have entered into coalition governments in more than one country – most recently, in Austria. Even in Canada, that progressive bastion of multiculturalism, there has been a dramatic increase in far-right hate group activity.
Here, there are signs that intolerance, prejudice and hatred may be on the rise too. White supremacist and anti-immigrant groups, inspired by global developments, have been operating in open view, in ways unseen for two decades.
The problem runs deeper. Within our political discourse, there has been a creeping normalisation of discrimination and hatred.
What may have been regarded as repugnant is now being entertained as part of ordinary debate. Proposals for immigration policy to discriminate on ethnic or religious grounds, and for the mass internment of Muslims, are just two examples of ideas that have been seriously aired in 2017. Pauline Hanson even dressed up in a burqa in the Senate chamber to make a point about Islam.
Meanwhile, we have seen commentators fantasise about running over people from migrant backgrounds with whom they disagree (as media personality Prue MacSween did about writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied). Some have reveled in disparaging multicultural voices by telling people to leave the country or “go back to where you came from”.
And, as in the case of Milo Yiannopoulos, sections of our media are content to pander to those with noxious views. Not all that long ago, those with sympathies to white supremacists and neo-Nazis could have expected rigorous scrutiny. Now, with the right amount of spruiking, they can expect to be fawned upon as celebrity provocateurs.
In part, this reflects our new political culture. We’ve become addicted to sugar hits of controversy. The business model of political commentary takes conflict as its currency. The result is we’ve grown used to thinking polarisation is normal. So much so that we may no longer be able to see extremism when it emerges.
It’s a danger only confirmed by the modus operandi of the far-right. Today’s neo-Nazis are more sophisticated than their predecessors. Not all of them will sport skinheads; many even go out of their way to make public disavowals of white supremacy.
That is part of the design to create ambiguity. It’s meant to lull an unsuspecting public to see the “alt-right” as ironic, meme-based counterculture. It is, of course, much more than that – nothing less than full-blown, organised racial politics.
Yet all this is only half the story. The story of 2017 is also one of multiculturalism’s resilience.
We often hear that Australia is among the most successful multicultural societies in the world. At times it sounds clichéd. But the evidence supports it.
The Scanlon Foundation’s annual survey on social cohesion, released last month, showed that 85 per cent of Australians believe that multiculturalism is good for the country. When it concerns the selection of immigrants, close to 80 per cent disagree that it should be possible to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion.
The middle ground of Australian society is firmly fixed in tolerance and diversity. This is part of the problem, however. Our success can beget complacency. It can encourage us either to deny or deflect the problem of racism.
It’s why many of us, in a conversation about racism, ask how Australia compares with the rest of the world. When put into this context, any issue we have with racism may look like a “first world” problem.
This isn’t what racism feels like, though, when you experience it. For example, the systemic and institutional racism that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people encounter can’t be dismissed as trivial. Copping discrimination or vilification isn’t about inconvenience. Racism does real harm to those on the receiving end.
Too often, those fortunate not to experience racism become preoccupied with defining what is “really” or “truly” racist. As a rule of thumb, it helps to listen to people’s experience. Understanding racism can start with putting yourself in the shoes of those who are wounded by it.
There are times when it seems even this basic task is beyond us. Empathy and compassion are becoming elusive. Our world is growing angrier. More and more, we are driven by conflict and are defined by resentment.
Those of us who believe in equality and tolerance must continue to believe it doesn’t have to be this way. Otherwise, there’s a chance 2018 could become the year of the racist.
Tim Soutphommasane is Race Discrimination Commissioner.