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Australia: Black Lives Matter Protests Shed Light on Indigenous Discrimination

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

Kate Byng-Hall investigates the impact BLM has had on highlighting deep-rooted discrimination of Indigenous people in Australia.

Photo by Clay Banks

During June, Black Lives Matter protests broke out around the world after the death of black man George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer in America. Australia was no different, with some marches numbering over 30,000 attendees, but indigenous Australians also used the platform to raise awareness for the discrimination they have faced for centuries, both from the police and the non-indigenous population.

Indigenous people, primarily Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, make up only 2.4% of Australia’s population of 25 million people, yet more than a quarter of the country’s prisoners are of indigenous descent. Moreover, there have been 434 indigenous deaths in police custody since 1991.

This figure has caused anger in Australia, leading to BLM protests in the country taking a local slant and expressing anger with police violence towards the indigenous population. One particular case causing unrest is the death of indigenous man Dave Dungay Jr in police custody in 2015 after five officers restrained him – his last words were reportedly “I can’t breathe”, the same as George Floyd’s.

“There's so many modern parallels with what's going on in Australia and the United States. It's the same institutionalised racism, it's the same black deaths in custody and police getting away with it with impunity.” – Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Sudanese-Australian activist and author

This discrimination is backed up by systemic non-indigenous bias in the country, as the Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues states that three quarters of Australians implicitly harbour such a bias against the indigenous population.

A survey of 1000 25-44-year-old non-indigenous Australians reveals some of the alarmingly biased opinions the population holds. 31% think indigenous people should behave more like ‘other Australians’, 21% would move seats if an indigenous person sat next to them, and 12% would tell jokes about indigenous people. 9% even admit that they wouldn’t hire an indigenous person. Most shockingly, 19% don’t recognise that racial discrimination could have a negative impact on indigenous people’s mental health.

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Colonial Legacy

Oppression of indigenous Australians began in the 18th century when Britain first colonised the country. In 1770, Captain Cook declared the east coast of Australia a possession of Britain. In 1788, British presence returned as 1500 British crew, marines, convicts and civilians arrived at Sydney Cove to settle.

Before colonisation, over 500 separate indigenous groups lived in Australia numbering around 750,000 people, but it is estimated that 90% of them were wiped out as a result of diseases brought over by the British including smallpox and measles, seizure of indigenous land, and conflict with the settlers. Around 20,000 indigenous Australians are thought to have been killed due to colonial violence.

Throughout the 19th century, British military forces were present in Australia to protect from outside threat, but also to contain and regulate potential rebellion from the suppressed indigenous population. While Australia gained its legal independence from British rule in 1931, targeting of indigenous people by the authorities doesn’t seem to have been dismantled.

Indigenous Civil Rights

Indigenous Australians began to demand more rights in the 1950s, with the Indigenous Civil Rights Movement taking off in the ‘60s around the same time as the Civil Rights Movement in America. The Movement called for the indigenous right to self-determination, namely participation in policy, decision-making and leadership at the same level as white Australians.

After years of protest, a 90% majority in a 1967 Referendum enacted changes to the Australian Constitution so that indigenous Australians were included in all clauses – this was an essential step in the indigenous population’s journey towards parity with their former colonisers.

In 2007, 144 members of the UN signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, an agreement designed to establish a global framework to promote the rights and well-being of indigenous people around the world in accordance with universal human rights standards. However, Australia was one of the four nations who initially declined to lend their signature before later reversing their decision.

The next year, in 2008, the Australian government made a formal commitment to eliminate disadvantage to indigenous Australians in their ‘Closing the Gap’ scheme. This ‘gap’ refers to the shorter life expectancy, higher infant mortality, poorer health, lower education and employment levels, and higher imprisonment rate among indigenous Australians compared to their non-indigenous counterparts.

A 2014 study indicates that these disadvantages are caused by “‘intergenerational trauma’ resulting from the ongoing and cumulative effects of colonisation, loss of land, language and culture, the erosion of cultural and spiritual identity, forced removal of children, and racism and discrimination.”

With anti-indigenous bias ingrained in the Australian psyche, it’s crucial that the entire population wakes up to the necessity of equality in order for the country’s indigenous population to escape from the oppressive cycle of limited opportunities, everyday racism and police discrimination.

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