Just 21 people have been convicted under hate crime laws in Australia. That’s a paltry response from our law enforcement agencies – and one that has a far bigger impact on all of us than immediately evident.
By Alison Clarke
Recently, I listened to a Radio National program about how poorly Australian legal and law enforcement agencies record and respond to hate crimes.
In fact, only 21 people have ever been convicted under our hate crime laws.
I worked part-time for 15 years in a secondary school in inner Melbourne attended by many Islamic students. Ask any one of the hijab-wearing girls at that school about racial hatred, and I'm pretty sure she'll be able to tell you of at least 21 incidents that have personally affected her, or her immediate family and friends.
Most or all won't have been reported, especially because many black kids in the area think the local police are engaged in racial profiling, and for good reason.
Hate cuts both ways
In the late 1990s I was living in London, working in a hospital in what my inner-London friends liked to call Harrow-On-The-Moon. This meant many long train trips into and across the city for some London culture and company.
This wasn't long after the murder of a London teenager called Stephen Lawrence, who had provoked his white killers into a murderous rage by sitting at a bus stop while black.
Two of his killers were finally convicted in 2012, but a 1999 inquiry into police handling of the case found that the police force was institutionally racist.
The black community and all right-thinking people in London erupted in rage, and rightly so.
A personal experience
One Saturday night around that time I caught a cross-city train to visit a friend in north London. A festival was happening near a train station along the way, so I stopped for a look. Realising that I was one of the few white people there, and that the vibe was a little scary (groups of young black men walking through the crowd with elbows out in what seemed to be organised formations), I quickly headed back towards the train station.
As I was walking across a pedestrian bridge, a crowd of teenagers came up behind me, so I moved to the left to let them pass. As they did, one of them punched me hard in the arm. I turned towards him and he punched me in the face, knocking me down.
As I lay on the bridge I could hear kids saying “kick her, kick her”, but thankfully nobody did. They all just ran past me and off into the night.
I pulled myself together and walked to the train station. I stood in a well-lit external doorway wondering what to do. My eye was sore and its contact lens was gone, so I couldn't see very well, or think very straight. I didn't want to go onto the train platform because that seemed to be where the kids had gone. I wondered when the next mob of angry teenagers might pass by. I didn't have a mobile phone. There were no cafes, pubs or other safe places to go nearby. So I just stood there in the doorway, shaking and crying.
A nice bloke I never really thanked enough came over and asked if I was OK, talked to me for a while and then rang my friends and drove me home. Hallelujah for the kindness of strangers.
Once the shock wore off, all I could think of was Stephen Lawrence. He was dead and I wasn't. I had a nasty bruise on my arm and a black eye. No permanent damage. I won at quid pro quo.
I'm pretty sure that kid on the bridge would not have attacked me if I hadn't been white and he hadn't been black, and he hadn't been angry about, and afraid of, racially-motivated violence.
I didn't go to the police. The incident might have been captured on CCTV, because CCTV even then was everywhere in London. But I didn't want to ask a racist police force to pursue a black teenager on my behalf, for causing injuries that would heal – and potentially causing harm that would not heal.
The Australian context
In the UK, cultural and legal changes followed the inquiry into the Lawrence case, making it safer to sit at a bus stop while black.
Here in Australia, we need to take hate speech and other signs of sectarian hatred seriously, and tackle them both as individuals.
This could take the form of walking down the train carriage to sit with the woman in a hijab, questioning the shop assistants who show obvious suspicion of black teenagers etc.
Of course, all this needs to be backed up with strong public policy solutions, as I'm glad the Greens propose.
It's the right thing to do, but it's also highly self-interested. Kids who suffer constant racism can't be expected not to get angry, and not to fight back. Like me, you could wander into their firing line.
If your skin is white, you'd then probably be taken seriously by the police, but that's a piece of white privilege we can all do without. Let's just not go there.
Alison Clarke is a Melbourne speech pathologist and ESL teacher. She has been the Victorian Greens Party Coordinator (2006-2008), a Yarra City Councillor (2008-2012) and Mayor (2011), and Vice-President of Learning Difficulties Australia (2015-2016).