The space between proxies for racism and straight-out racism is decreasing. In the state of Victoria, media outlets and political parties have taken part in the realisation of a brazenly manufactured public panic around “African crime gangs”, and they are failing to own the subsequent damage that it’s doing to humans, communities and society.
Though this issue emerged coated in insinuation, implication and proxies, the balance between sincere appeals to statistics and explicitly declared race hate seems to have shifted. It feels like the mathematical justifications for this panic last mere seconds. The destination of this effort, the infliction of some sort of spiritual or physical pain on non-white Australians, is reached with more speed and efficiency than ever before.
I didn’t realise this until recently, when I was caught off guard and suffered the consequences.
Never tell me the odds
The ‘African Gangs’ idea became prominent in 2015, and has since been used as a prefabricated narrative for a few prominent incidents, including the trashing of an AirBnB property and a big public brawl. There’s a detailed breakdown of the timeline in this article. It’s come up frequently in Australian media reports, always with a focus on the background and ethnicity of the people involved.
In a Twitter thread about racial diversity in Australian newsrooms, I suggested that a lack of diverse perspectives might be contributing to the manifestation of this particular phenomenon in media reports.
The responses were amazingly swift – first, with a few appeals to statistics, and then, after a brief exchange, a barrage of tweets turning the conversation towards my perceived ethnicity:
It took moments for my entire feed to become a stream of abuse directed purely at urging me to return to my ‘brown brothers’, taunts about the Indian caste system, and straight-up white supremacy. I tried reporting one of them, but Twitter’s response was an emphatic ‘no’, which was changed about half a day later after the number of reports increased.
It’s worth highlighting the widespread support I got when I shared the tweets I was receiving. Pockets of nastiness are countered by a large number of warm-hearted people with flickers of brave defensiveness.
But, there was no code here – no dog-whistling, no time-delayed reaction, no proxies and no pretending. This was about my face, skin, parents and birthplace, and whether or not my existence ought to be erased from Australia.
It does damage your function, when you’re subject to something like this. It temporarily silences you, and it’s very hard to explain how paralysing it is to someone who’s never been on the receiving end of it.
Examining the numerical justifications for their race hate is something they’re no longer keen on allowing, and abuse is an amazingly effective pathway for silencing anyone who tries.
It seems, then, worthwhile to dig deeper into the issue they’ll summon mountains of xenophobic bile to avoid – whether the statistics back their oft-repeated claims.
Data can whisper words you want to hear
Crawl down the rabbit hole of hyperlinks, and they trace back to a Victorian government organisation, ‘Crime Statistics Victoria‘, with variations of their numbers repeated in several ABC news and Fairfax articles:
“Sudanese youths were vastly over-represented in the 2015 data, responsible for 7.44 per cent of home invasions, 5.65 per cent of car thefts and 13.9 per cent of aggravated robberies, despite Sudanese-born citizens making up about 0.11 per cent of Victoria’s population”
It’s from these sources, sliced in various ways and retrieved at various times, that Bolt and many others confidently declare there’s some racial component to crime in Victoria.
First, let’s find out how many people in Victoria were born elsewhere – I got this from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Table Builder site and the 2016 census.
At the time of that census, there were 5.9 million people in Victoria. 3.8 million were born in Australia, 169,802 born in India, and well down the list, 5,665 born in Sudan – 0.1% of the state. The small percent of Sudanese born migrants in Victoria seems accurate.
What about those crime statistics? In this horrible mess of a debate, there are three types of data people refer to, each split up by the country of birth of the person:
- All unique offenders
- Specific types of crime (assault, car theft etc)
- Specific types of crime, committed by people aged between 10 and 18
First, if we look at Crime Statistics Victoria’s unique offenders data, then yes, people born in Sudan do seem over-represented in the data (using the 2016 numbers because that’s when the census happened):
Okay. What happens if we look at other places of birth? Australia:
What? People born in Australia are over-represented among Victoria’s unique offender population. That’s weird. What about for people born in New Zealand?
There’s a reason the over-representation of Australians and New Zealanders in crime statistics isn’t brought up: these aren’t confirmatory of a racist hypothesis. Of course, this doesn’t mean Australians and New Zealanders are criminals. It’s very unlikely that any group will show up in crime stats exactly as they show up in the population. Sample size, cultural elements and a range of other factors change this.
This is an understanding that needs to be applied consistently – currently, the intentional exclusion of comparison mean Sudanese over-representation is treated as wholesale confirmation of race-based criminality.
What about specific crimes? They come up a lot, too, including Andrew Bolt’s ’44 times more likely’ article, and again, if you look at Sudanese-born individuals, the results are seemingly damming.
Yep, you guessed it – both Australians and New Zealanders are over-represented in almost all of these categories, too:
Worse still, these comparisons are misleading – those percentages relate to youth crime, not to all crime, but the population data are for all people, not just youth. The 2016 census shows that Victoria’s Sudanese-born migrants are made up of a much higher proportion of young people, compared to the adult population:
Even looking at the top 50 countries of birth in Victoria, Sudan has the skew that sits the most to the left – towards young teens:
Highlighted above are Sudan – skewing far left, and as a point of comparison, Italy, skewing far right.
“We have a very skewed age distribution within the Sudanese population,” criminologist Rebecca Wickes told the ABC. “Fifty per cent of the Sudanese population is under the age of 25, and that’s compared with 33 per cent of the Australian general population. So you’re not comparing like with like.”
I emailed Crime Statistics Victoria to get some more insight on the role age plays, relative to a few different recent-migrant communities in Victoria. They sent me the number of unique offenders by age and country of birth, which I’ve converted into the distribution across the age groups, like above. It only splits it out up to age 25, unfortunately, but it’s still telling:
I know this is an onslaught of charts, but I really appreciate that you’ve stuck with me, because this is the chart that reveals the trick underlying the majority of media reports – the word ‘youth’.
Sudanese people are over-represented in youth crime statistics partly because they are over-represented as youths. If all the media reports only showed over-35’s, I bet you’d get some different results (I couldn’t find that data, unfortunately)
This age confusion is not the whole story, but the muddling of full population data with partial youth crime data plays a big part in exaggerating the representation of a particular ethnicity, in the reporting of crime.
These are the varied mechanics of how representation is exaggerated, sliced and re-packaged to confirm a collection of racist beliefs. In some cases they’re accidental misunderstandings, in other cases, they’re driven by powerful confirmation bias and an urge to cement the insane, unhealthy delusions of racism in hard numbers and statistical fortitude.
This is part of why querying statistics behind this campaign is a punishable offence. They wield talismanic importance for those deeply obsessed with skin and birth. These numbers whisper words they want to hear, and interrogating them silences an imaginary friend they can’t live without.
Your darkest instincts are justified. More at six
On Sunday the 8th of July 2018, Channel 7 aired a story aimed squarely at African migrants. They led with,
“Barely a week goes by when there’s not a report in the news. African gangs running riot, terrorising, robbing, wreaking havoc. Yet we live in such politically correct times that, in Victoria, police have been loath to admit there’s even a problem. But there is”
They’ve inadvertently highlighted the self-confirming circularity of the media’s selection bias. Through this approach, it’s literally impossible they’ll ever encounter evidence they’re wrong.
During the episode, a white Melbournian woman subject to a robbery by ‘armed African criminals’ declares how the experience has changed her:
“I’m too nervy. I can’t go to a shopping centre because if I ran into a coloured person I’d be having a panic attack. It’s just not easy. Even going for a walk…..I hope I never see [the burglars] ever again. I think I’d drop dead. That’s how I feel. Cause, when I see coloured people, that’s how I feel. I’m going to die. And I have a panic attack. I can’t breathe”
This woman embodies the connective tissue holding this entire campaign together: the instinctive and unquestioned linkage formed between the behaviour of a person, their skin, and every single person who shares that physical exterior colouring.
There was a backlash on social media and community leaders in Victoria against the segment, but Channel 7 stood by their decisions. The backlash was largely ignored. “It doesn’t mean I’m hopeless but the facts as they are now, it feels like we’re [community leaders are] shouting into a hole,” Nyadol Nyuon, a lawyer from Victoria told the Guardian.
A few days back, a Liberal party flyer was distributed in the seat of Keysborough in Victoria, focusing on gangs . An article in The Australian takes issue with criticism of the flyer, described as dog-whistling, pleading that:
“Victorian Multiculturalism Commission chairwoman Helen Kapalos told ABC radio in Melbourne that the flyer was using “identity politics” and was targeting one community; despite the fact the flyers do not mention Africans”
When you trace the image back to its source, a header for an article in London’s Evening Standard in 2012, the issue becomes clear – The Oz’s image is cropped, re-sized and re-lit, but the original picture on the glossy flyer features a dark-skinned hand draped over a bicycle handlebar, and unambiguous images of scary dark-skinned gang members:
The candidate distributing the image featuring dark-skinned young men decided to pull back. It was really quite jarring that this extremely important fact was largely ignored in the back-and-forth around this particular news piece.
It’s been happening for a while. Sky News host Rowan Dean once said the following, on Sky News After Dark, (a Fox News clone):
“If I were doing the Melbourne [pedestrian] traffic lights, I would actually have – instead of the woman – I’d have a Sudanese guy with a crowbar flashing up on the lights to warn you that you’re about to be carjacked”
Sky News was recently forced to apologise for broadcasting the comments of a Senator musing about the sexual history of a female Senator, but each instance of serious racist abuse on the network has passed by with a cheerful half-day of mild, politely worded Twitter criticism from a smattering of critics.
As I mentioned earlier, media outlets consistently highlight the ethnicity and background of criminals when they’re not white, and avoid that data point when they are. For every news piece tagging criminals with a country of origin, you can find a precise equivalent perpetrated by a white Australian with no such mention.
Large-scale media campaigns targeted at individuals and engaged in the name of aggressive and damaging race hate aren’t really considered much of a problem. Cartoons vilifying Indians and Indigenous Australians are routinely cleared by the Australian Press Council, alongside articles that specifically attack individuals on the grounds of their race and religion.
The meaning of this is clear: racism in Australian media is unpleasant, but no alarm bells are to be rung.This is a standard that is being walked past on a daily basis, and so we can reliably infer that it is accepted.
It’s a horrible state of affairs, and too few of us are bothered by daily lunges we take towards this decade’s Cronulla Riots. “When it becomes a racialised moral panic, then we start to see the things that lead toward Cronulla over 10 years ago. That was instigated by a very similar array of panics” says Anthony Kelly, of the Fitzroy Kensington Communty Legal Centre, in the Guardian.
Here’s a suggestion for a starting point: fix diversity in Australian newsrooms, both commercial and public. Increase the prominence of those who can compute the impacts of racism, and perhaps these people might find a way to get eyeballs and clicks without making young Australians pay the price.
“We’ve just completed a survey of Melbourne residents on perceptions towards minority groups and I am quite astounded at how many people who have reported having no contact with the African community feel anger and less warmth towards them than compared to other groups,” Dr Rebecca Wickes, the aforementioned criminologist, told the ABC.
That the intensity of racism is inverse to real-world contact with people from an African background is utterly unsurprising – these mythologies are created and maintained through the pointed exclusion of diverse voices. Reality is a wrench in the gears of this panic engine.
Nyadol Nyuon, the Victorian lawyer and community leader, wrote a piece in a recent edition of the Saturday Paper, highlighting the personal impact of this campaign:
“I received a text from a young South Sudanese woman I mentor. She wanted to talk. I knew what it was about. When we met for lunch, she told me the media coverage had affected her so much she’d started avoiding eye contact with anyone on the train. I have known this girl for years. She is strong, intelligent and confident. But that was not the girl sitting across from me that day”
To chase advertising revenue by feeding raw fuel to the fear centres of your audience’s brains, or to climb the polls in an election year by targeting Australians whose physicality fits some xenophobic requirements, is an ill-gotten gain. The cost of this process is drawn from smart, energetic diverse young migrants, who are all ready to give back to an already richly-diverse country.
Racism is welfare for mediocre jerks, too dull to calculate how to exist without sucking life from young Australians from diverse backgrounds.
As we’re beaten into the ground by misinformation campaigns, this too is presented as evidence of our worthlessness, of our failure to integrate and to accept Australian culture. Young Australian women staring at the ground in the shopping centre for fear of inducing an anxiety attack in little old ladies are labelled anti-social.
I’m privileged. I wasn’t born in Australia but I grew up in London, I had a great education and I can wield words and numbers to prove a point. I grew up in comfort, among diverse, welcoming friends, and I do my best to ensure my existence is a net gain for the communities that I exist in.
All of my education, humanity and social capital was erased at a quantum level when I was reduced to my brown outer layer, my birthplace, and the historical geography of my parents. No quantity of data will ever override the fear my face and skin instigate. I’m coloured, and I induce anxiety attacks in little old ladies and seething abuse in bloated, anonymous Twitter men.
I made the truly dumb mistake of engaging with racists on my lunch break, and I sat at my desk for the rest of the afternoon, trying to focus on my job while my definition as a brown invader were buzzing in my mind. White supremacist tinnitus noise while I’m trying to do a job that I genuinely love.
This pseudoscientific religion, that your ancestry and skin imbue magical influence over your humanity is an insane, salivating, violent cult. These people would burn down society if it meant the maintenance of their beliefs for a further minute.
There has been a reduction of space between the pseudostatistics presented to justify a racist meme, and the straight-out presentation of racist abuse. The deranged, abusive and violent destination of this campaign is millimetres away.