Australian Notes

Australian notes

20 June 2020

9:00 AM

20 June 2020

9:00 AM

Is it racism or the obsession with racism that is costing indigenous lives?

Where’s the outrage regarding the high death rates of men in Australian prisons? Although making up only 50 per cent of the population, they make up more than 90 per cent of the deaths in prison. Clearly men are being systematically slaughtered. Aren’t they? Well actually, no. But the figures don’t lie? That’s true, but people tell lies.

There’s no outrage for two reasons: first, men make up the bulk of the prison population, hence you would expect most of the deaths in prison to be for men; second, male deaths in custody is not flavour of the month/century as Aboriginal deaths in custody is the preferred vehicle for outrage, and that’s what this article is about.

Before continuing, there is one misconception to clear up. I, and a couple of others, were recently quoted as revealing to the public that Aboriginal people in custody are no more likely to die than non-Aboriginal people in custody. However, this is hardly a revelation. Knowledge of this fact has been in the public arena for a long time. David Biles was for three years the head of the criminology research group of the royal commission into black deaths in custody. He writes: ‘in the early days of the royal commission, when I and a small team of researchers were able to prove unequivocally that Aboriginal people were slightly less likely to die in prison or police custody than non-Aboriginal people, we were met with derision and disbelief. We were even accused of disloyalty to the royal commission.’ I first learnt about this back in 2011 when Dr Gary Johns wrote about it.

When Gary revealed this, admittedly I was surprised. I had just accepted it as a fact that Aboriginal people in custody were more likely to die than non-Aboriginal people in custody. After all, so many commentators in Aboriginal affairs had been stating it. Actually more than just stating it, they were priggishly shouting it. Much like the urban myth that Aboriginal people came under a flora and fauna act, it was seen as a ‘truth’ that ‘proved’ Australia was extremely racist against Aboriginal people.

So why has this myth prevailed? The myth meets the needs of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia, well in the short term at least. For some Aboriginal Australians, it’s the perfect distraction from discussing the elephants in the room like the high rates of violence and child abuse. They also use it to feel like heroes by claiming to be victims of racism. Any claim of racism, such as a taxi not stopping, being watched in a shop, missing out on a job, or being told ‘you don’t look Aboriginal to me’ is automatically validated by the claim of Australia’s poor record of Aboriginal deaths in custody.


But it also serves the needs of some non-Aboriginal Australians. For those wanting to feel that they are making a difference and are strong in moral character, saying ‘Australia is racist and the high rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody proves it’ does the trick. And if they are really feeling committed, then marching in the Black Lives Matter protests is the icing on the cake.

Fortunately, many Aussies have detected the fake outrage of the BLM movement and are fighting back. Subsequently, responsible commentators on Indigenous affairs have felt confident enough to report the truth that Aboriginal people in custody are no more likely to die than non-Aboriginal people in custody.

While not well received by the ABC and SBS, this truth is becoming more difficult to escape, given that anyone with a high school knowledge of percentages, can understand that while Aboriginal people comprise approximately 27 per cent of people in custody, they only account for 17 per cent of the deaths, as was clearly stated in the government publication, The Health of Australia’s Prisoners: 2015. While the figures may have changed slightly since 2015, the story is still the same.

However, still needing a cause to be seen to be fighting for, the ‘blacktivists’ refuse to acknowledge that Aboriginal people in custody are no more likely to die than non-Aboriginal people in custody and latch on to the fact that Aboriginal people are over-incarcerated. Nobody disagrees that high incarceration rates for Aboriginal people is a major problem, although there is strong disagreement on what are the causes, but that’s a discussion for another time.

A truth (Aboriginal people are over-incarcerated) plus a lie (Aboriginal people in custody are more likely to die than non-Aboriginal people in custody) often produces another lie. The lie here is that Aboriginal people who die in custody do so because they are in custody. While this may be true for a minority, the Australian Institute of Criminology states that the majority of deaths are due to natural causes or hanging. Neither of these causes vanish when a person is outside of custody.

Activists then protest for lower incarceration rates. While shifting Aboriginal people out of custody may reduce the number of deaths in custody, it is unlikely to have any major impact on Aboriginal deaths overall; it simply changes the location of death. It would be like shifting Aboriginal people out of NSW into Tasmania as a way of lowering death rates in NSW. The best way of reducing Aboriginal deaths in custody is to focus on reducing Aboriginal deaths, full stop.

So how do we do reduce Aboriginal death rates? We already know the answer; it’s no mystery. They need to live in safe environments with access to affordable fresh and nutritious food, clean water and modern services. Incidentally, this is the sort of environment that most of the BLM protesters live in.

For this to happen, adults need to be working in meaningful jobs and children need to attend school regularly. So how is this different to what non-Aboriginal Australians need in order to thrive? There is no difference. Maybe the smokescreen of ‘Australia is a racist country’ and ‘black lives matter’ has prevented those in the positions of power and influence from seeing this?

Could it be that this obsession with ‘racism’ is actually costing Aboriginal lives?

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