Indigenous People in Australia and Inequality

Essay, 2015

7 Pages, Grade: 84%

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Rosie Ung

Racism can be defined as ‘the determination of actions, attitudes and policies by beliefs about racial characteristics’ (Abercrombie, Hill & Turner 2000, p.316). Racism takes many forms, but at its core, uses these formed beliefs to justify and maintain a racially hierarchical society that either limits or entitles rights and resources on the basis of race (Green & Saggers 2015, p.). It may be overt and individual or covert and institutional (Abercrombie, Hill & Turner 2000, p.316). The discrimination experienced by the Indigenous people in Australia is an example of such inequality. Decades of cultural and physical genocide have left Indigenous and non-Indigenous people with complex challenges that extend deeper than everyday racism (Green & Saggers 2015, p.). We will discuss how institutional structures sustain and maintain a cycle of racism and inequality that is embedded in the education and justice systems (Ford 2013, p.95).

There have been many theories attempting to understand and explain Indigenous people. At one spectrum people like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (cited in Green & Saggers 2015, p.295) admired them for their courage and simplicity, calling them ’noble savages’. At the other extreme many viewed them as the lowest form of humankind on a hierarchy that had Europeans at the top (Green & Saggers 2015, p.295). It was this belief, backed with Social Darwinism, the theory of natural selection but with a focus on humans, and scientific racist ideologies such as phrenology, the measure of intelligence through measuring the size and shape of the head and brain, that justified this belief and subsequently rationalised the colonisation of Australia (Green & Saggers 2015, p.295). The invasion in 1788 by the British Empire led to massacres and brought disease that devastated the Indigenous population (Green & Saggers 2015, p.296). Between the 1830’s to the 1970’s missionary projects were introduced to control the Indigenous, who were considered irrelevant to the development of the new empire and considered a dying breed (Green & Saggers 2015, p.297). Missions became a way of ‘civilising’ the Indigenous by training them in ‘useful’ occupations such as livestock management and housework, and teaching them to read scriptures and singing hymns (Davis 1999, p.3). By 1937 assimilation policies were enforced by the government. With a focus on the growing population of ‘part Aboriginal’ people these mixed blood children were forcibly removed from their families and sent into boarding homes before cultural Indigenous knowledge could be transferred, which was considered detrimental to the assimilation (Green & Saggers 2015, p.297). It was believed that these children would be able to be absorbed into white society due to their white superior blood (Green & Saggers 2015, p.297). As reported in Bringing Them Home these children were to become the ‘Stolen Generation’ and were welcomed into Australian society as ‘honorary whites (Green & Saggers 2015, p.297). The remaining Indigenous people experienced segregation and was marginalized by society (Green & Saggers 2015, p.298). It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 1970’s that a period of resistance against an oppressive government and society was expressed by the Indigenous people. A symbolic Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra was established and saw a shift from overt oppressive practices and policies to efforts in addressing issues of inequality, discrimination and disadvantages caused by them (Green & Saggers 2015, p.298).

Australia has a population of over 18 million people and over 300 thousand are Indigenous (Davis 1999, p.5). At just 2% of the overall Australian population Indigenous people are 14 times more likely to be imprisoned, comprising of 25% of the prison population (Pareira & Scott 2012, p. 335). Indigenous people are 27 times more likely to be in police custody and 2-5 times more likely to suffer from victimisation as compared to non-Indigenous people (Pareira & Scott 2012, p. 335). This vastly over representation can be partially explained by the high population of Indigenous people in rural areas where there are more police (Pareira & Scott 2012, p. 342). Cunneen and Libesman (cited in Davis 1999, p.5) found that a majority of Aboriginals under police custody are for public order offences where police discretion is at its highest. At this stage police have the power to choose who they charge and with what. The criminal justice system is a representation of society’s prejudices and the inherent bias against Indigenous people, resulting in unfair consequences that have long term effects (Davis 1999, p.6). The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (cited in Pareira & Scott 2012, p. 335) report that Indigenous people are highly disadvantaged such as lower rates of income, higher rates of unemployment, shorter life expectancy and higher levels of mental illness and disability. These factors can directly impact law breaking (Pareira & Scott 2012, p. 335). High rates of imprisonment and criminalisation only reinforces their exclusion from society, economically and socially (Pareira & Scott 2012, p. 335). High rates of victimisation and violence are only worsened by high levels of non-disclosure, especially concerning sexual abuse of children and violence against other adults (Pareira & Scott 2012, p. 335). One of the earliest theories include Robert Merton’s (1938) strain theory which suggests that when limited opportunity and poverty prohibit an individual from achieving social status and success, the individual may turn to crime to achieve cultural goals (Pareira & Scott 2012, p. 342). Indigenous peoples disadvantaged position in the social structure directly inhibits their propensity to achieve culturally approved goals and may turn to crime (Pareira & Scott 2012, p. 342). Since colonisation, culturally approved goals have changed for Indigenous people becoming capitalistic and white hegemonic in nature. Donnermeyer, Jobes and Barclay (cited in Pareira & Scott 2012, p. 342) have studied the relationship between crime and poverty in rural areas within the context of social disorganization theory. It argues that the main source of social disorganisation is poverty, that communities that have high rates of poverty do not have the resources to support and sustain institutions, such as schools, that encourage pro-social behaviours. As economic inequalities are closely related to social and political inequalities, economic divisions in society may manifest through loyalties and values (Pareira & Scott 2012, p. 342). Communities that have experienced intergenerational disadvantage and poverty may develop alternate means of support, such as crime or may, in some cases, become ‘rebellious’ or ‘retreatist’ in nature whose norms and practices clash with societies norms (Pareira & Scott 2012, p. 342). An important factor is the overall lack of trust in the police and the criminal justice system. This is not surprising, with a recent history of physical and cultural genocide, segregation and forced separation of families many of which were still enforced up until the 1970’s (Pareira & Scott 2012, p. 335).

The denial of proper education is another example of previous institutional racism. These events are recent and the legacy of these policies is still present in contemporary society (Ford 2013, p.83). The achievement gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is an example of these legacies (Ford 2013, p.82). MCEECDTA (cited in Ford 2013, p.90) found that in the Northern Territory, 8.1% of Year 3 non- Indigenous students were performing below the national minimal standard whereas their Indigenous equivalent were performing 58.7% below the national minimal standard. Students in Year 5 and in Year 9 were also tested, with similar stories. Contemporary Australian society enforces the idea that white western knowledge is superior and that Indigenous cultural attitudes, traditions and beliefs prevent students from achieving in present day society (Ford 2013, p.98). Simpson, Caffery and McConvell (cited in Ford 2013, p.98) argues that this idea enabled the government to terminate bilingual education in the 1990’s and subsequently changed educational practices by removing Indigenous teachers, teaching aids and other Indigenous staff members who enabled a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of being. In addition to poor attendance and reduction in motivation another ramification is locked-in inequality. Gillborn (cited in Ford 2013, p.98) argues that Aboriginals in remote areas will be locked into social and educational inequalities for decades unless a profound change in education takes place. Ober (cited in Ford 2013, p.98) defines new concepts such as both-ways education that draws on and acknowledges knowledge, skills, language and concepts from both western and Indigenous cultures.

Racism can be seen within institutions, policies and in everyday social interactions. Critical race theory argues that racism and white dominance is so embedded in society that it has become normalized in everyday interactions (Kessaris 2006, p.349). It focuses on white hegemony and social and political practices that impede on Indigenous people and brings to light the control of white domination within economic, legal and educational domains (Ford 2013, p.83). Furthermore critical race theory discusses the relationship between colonialism and the white Australians who acknowledge and benefit from it whilst working to dismantle it (Kessaris 2006, p.349). Inversions are tactics that turn the blame from white Autralians and their overt discriminative relations with the Indigenous and project them onto Indigenous people so they are seen as primitive, unable and unwilling to adapt (Kessaris 2006, p.349). George Herbert Mead (1934) suggests that part of our self identification comes partly from identifying who we are not (Fozdar, Wilding & Hawkins 2009, p.4). We then recognize who is a part of our social group and who are not. This racial ‘othering’ helps us process the world by creating over simplified binaries such as adult/child, justice/injustice and black/white (Fozdar, Wilding & Hawkins 2009, p.4).

The education system and the criminal justice system are two social frameworks that heavily influence Indigenous futures (Green and Saggers 2015, p.304). As education is a strong indicator of employment and employment playing factor in criminalization these systems trap individuals in a cycle of disadvantage and help preserve and maintain Indigenous inequality in Australia (Davis 1999, p.12). Dodson (cited in Davis 1999, p.12) notes that the‘ rights of Indigenous Australians are suffocating underneath a plethora of discriminatory laws, confused administrative arrangements, and a system that knows a lot about control and very little about empowerment’. It is these laws, arrangements and systems that distract from the real issue of inequality; the economic system (Fozdar, Wilding and Hawkins 2009, p.17). Efforts such as the ‘Apology’ in 2008, the focus on ‘Closing the gap’ by the Australian government and an emphasis on Indigenous self-determination have attempted to tackle these issues (Green and Saggers 2015, p.300). Unless these connections between structural and historical and disadvantage and racism are acknowledged and dealt with ‘there will only be short-term reactive solutions rather than long term structural and institutional change’ (Behrendt 2003; Markus 2001 cited in Green and Saggers 2015, p.298 Word Count 1742


Abercrombie, N, Hill, S & Turner, BS 2000, The Penguin dictionary of sociology, 4th edn, Penguin, London.

Davis, B 1999, ‘The inappropriateness of the criminal justice system–Indigenous Australian criminological perspective’, In 3rd National Outlook Symposium on crime in Australia, Mapping the Boundaries of Australia’s Criminal Justice System, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, pp.1-14, <>

Ford, M 2013, ‘Achievement gaps in Australia: what NAPLAN reveals about education inequality in Australia’, Race, Ethnicity and Education, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 80–102.

Fozdar, F, Wilding, R & Hawkins, M 2009, Race and ethnic relations, Oxford, South Melbourne, pp. 3–25

Green, M & Saggers, S 2015, ‘Race and reconciliation in Australia’, in J Germov & M Poole (eds), Public sociology: an introduction to Australian society 3rd edition, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, pp. 292–309.

Kessaris, TN 2006, ‘About being Mununga (Whitefulla): making covert group racism visible’, Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, vol. 16, pp. 347–62.

Pareira M & Scott J 2012, ‘Inequalities of crime.’ in M. Marmo, W. De Lint and D. Palmer, (eds), Crime and Justice: A Guide to Criminology, 4th edn, Thomson Reuters, Sydney, Chapter 15.

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Indigenous People in Australia and Inequality
Deakin University
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Aboriginals, Australia, Inequality, Sociology, Indegenous, Social institutions
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Rosie Ung (Author), 2015, Indigenous People in Australia and Inequality, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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