A story we are all invested in

08 January 2018

I find it interesting that the politicians making headlines for calling out political correctness are also the ones prepared to jump on the most damaging of bandwagons – the populist, divisive media stereotype, in this case, relating to African youth. Let’s make no mistake, this story is not just about crime, it’s about the politics of race and immigration. With that in mind, and with the emotional loading which comes with fierce identity politics, are we really hearing balanced views in this arena, the court of public opinion, when we are all too often subject to a skewed debate?  Debates, after all,  are meant to introduce two sides of an argument.

Journalism was created to champion fierce independence and integrity while devoting itself to issues of social justice and equity. Former Newspaper proprietor Adolph Ochs summed it up well. He said the news report was created to give the news ‘impartiality without fear or favour, regardless of party, sect or interests involved’.  His vision for the genesis of the opinion report, quoted by his great, great grandson, now the News Publisher for the New York Times, was ‘to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion’.

It might come as a surprise to some of us to remember that the young people involved in these crimes are also Australians, many born and raised here. Each young man or woman is one of us. They are not ‘them’. Each has their own set of circumstances. They are not defined by their racial origins. By entering this debate we are being invited to take sides in race politics and a race divide, based on colour and stereotypes. These media articles rarely delve into the contributing factors of crime for vulnerable community members, such as poor settlement pathways which research shows can be characterised by high youth unemployment and poor educational outcomes in some areas. It is worth noting that settlement is a Commonwealth responsibility.

On the one hand Australians are being asked to embrace repeated assertions by our political leaders that we are the most successful multicultural society in the world, while other politicians continue to incite fear by suggesting we should deport African Australian youth ‘where we can’ as though they belong to a category of dispensable people. It’s not helpful and it’s not productive.

The latest dispatches about residents who are too terrified to go into restaurants or leave their homes because they might encounter African Australian youth have been met with much dismay too. In my role at the Victorian Multicultural Commission, which involves concentrated community engagement, I have neither seen or heard any evidence of this from our communities. I have, however, seen and heard from African Australian youth afraid of what is coming as a result of storylines like the ones appearing on the front page of newspapers in recent days.

They fear they are once again more likely to be subject to discrimination.  They also know they will have to fight that much harder to try and attain what all youth are aspiring for – a sense of belonging, the right pathways to education and employment, and the chance to build a life for themselves. Research from our extensive community consultations at the Commission shows African Australian youth are far more likely to experience unconscious bias when they attempt to enter the job market. It is also not unusual for us at the Commission to hear from jobseekers of Australian African background who are undertaking their second or third University degree because they would rather be studying than unemployed, or in a job that doesn’t match their qualifications. That’s their reality.

For me this debate centres on how we can best strengthen our communities when they need us. The issues facing these communities are complex, and the most effective solutions are often the simplest. Last year we consulted with a group of mothers from South Sudanese background in the suburb of Melton West. They were pleading with us to find a way to get their children onto the sporting field, and in this case, into the local soccer club, so they could integrate with other members of the community and be engaged in healthy pursuits. The costs were so prohibitive they could only afford one registration per family. As a result the Football Federation of Victoria is working with them on creating a local sporting competition, and the results have been very positive. In Sunshine West, we have watched a group of young women from South Sudanese background flourish after being awarded a small grant from council to create a film, which earned international praise. One of those young girls, at the tender age of 22, looks after five of her siblings with relatives, after she tragically lost her mother a year ago. She never complains, she just gets on with it. She recently completed her Certificate IV in Youth Work.

There are countless more examples of success that we could share with you and what’s remarkable in all of this is that some of the most disadvantaged community members are also some of the most inspiring.  I often wish that the wider community saw more of this side of the story. A few weekends ago I was attending a homework club on the grounds of the housing commission estate at Flemington. A young eight year-old boy sat next to me and proudly told me he would become a doctor when he grew up. Not a single one of the kids owns a smart phone or a computer, yet education officers report they are all making significant progress at school in English and Maths.

The story we witness on the ground is that so many young people of African background are seeking to attain a sense of belonging in a place where they feel they are not always welcome. Victoria is often held up around the world as a shining example of successful multiculturalism. But it’s only successful because of its people and the way we, as citizens, embrace everyone, regardless of culture or background. In that sense, the ongoing success of multiculturalism is a story we are all invested in.

Perhaps the final words should be left to a young man of African Australian background who articulated his simple wish at a recent community gathering.

He said, “My vision is an Australia where African Australians are Australians.”


*An edited version of this piece was published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 5 January 2018.

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