It was around 2001 when migrant panic in Australia shifted from “Asians” to Muslims. By now the transition is so complete that it is easy, not to mention convenient, for many to forget how intense and politicised the hostility to new arrivals from China, Vietnam and elsewhere became.
Where it is recalled, migrant panic is frequently characterised as belonging to the benighted masses, expressing itself in a half-formed howl. But it was often skilfully employed by elites seeking political advantage, audiences, and extensions of their own power.
In 1984, the eminent historian Geoffrey Blainey attacked the levels of Asian immigration and the policy of multiculturalism. In doing so he provided John Howard a vocabulary for his “One Australia” policy, which he launched as opposition leader in 1988.
Howard did not talk in frank terms of racial inferiority, but suggested that Asian migration be “slowed down a little, so the capacity of the community to absorb it was greater”. It was an early example of what Jacques Ranciere calls “cold racism”.
Cold racism is an elite apology for the limits of a “backward” population, and for the regrettable “burden of popular and populist passions”. It offers an expert solution to head off and manage this “popular” racism, as Ranciere wrote in 2005:
[T]hey explain more and more that there are economic constraints and thresholds of tolerance, and that, in the end, foreigners must be driven off, because if they are not, there is a risk of creating racism.
But as he says: “there is no need to be socially threatened or culturally ‘handicapped’ to resent the other … there is objective pleasure in playing with the formulations that serve to identify the traits of the other”.
Howard lost the leadership year after “One Australia”, in 1989, but in re-politicising ethnicity he set a pattern to which he and others could and would return. By the early 1990s, police seeking more resources and discretion were happy to assist in an increasing focus on Vietnamese criminal gangs in Sydney’s Western suburbs.
By the time this was processed through tabloid media, the actions of a few had become a question mark over the capacity of an entire ethnic and cultural community to assimilate to Australian values. Parliamentary inquiries were launched, and police powers were increased as 1990s elections became law and order auctions.
Pauline Hanson reflected all this in her maiden speech as the Member for Oxley in 1996. She spoke of the danger of being “swamped by Asians”, who “have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate”.
She did not come up with these (or really any) ideas on her own. She amplified sentiments which had long circulated on talkback radio and in tabloid newspapers. But rather than forestalling racism, Howard played a part in legitimising its expression.
The One Nation uprising roiled Australian politics for a while, especially on the right. Howard quickly caught up. The events of 2001 – 9/11 and the Tampa – allowed him to transpose one of Hanson’s homespun metaphors for a new purpose, and to direct it at a new target.
Hanson’s “If I can invite whom I want into my home, then I should have the right to have a say in who comes into my country”, became Howard’s “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.
The focus had shifted. Howard’s victories moved suspicion and hostility towards Middle Eastern migrants and refugees to the heart of Australian politics, and it is yet to be dislodged.
The greatest testament to this is that a punitive system of refugee detention has become tantamount to a necessity of rule. Its maintenance has become both a criterion and guarantor of governments’ political legitimacy.
For the political right, the effacement of previous racism is an important way in which the focus of current anxieties is produced and reproduced as an existential threat.
If we remember the Chinese white slaver, the Irish hooligan, the Calabrian mafioso, the Triad member, or the 5T gang heroin dealer, then the teenage Jihadi may seem less like an existential threat, and more like a new spin on a recurring rhetorical figure.
It’s still a shock, though, to see the events of one’s own lifetime dismissed and erased, as readers of Wednesday’s Australian editorial did.
The newspaper took to task those who sought to explain recent acts by young Muslim men in terms of their alienation rather than their religion, asking
“why other immigrant groups, such as Chinese, South African, Italian or Vietnamese, haven’t reacted to the difficulties of integration with similar indiscriminate violence”.
It is of course true that none of these groups engaged in indiscriminate violence, but the innocence of the Vietnamese was hard to discern in the journalism Holt Street produced in the 1990s.
The main concern of the editorial is to sanctify established migrants, the better to scapegoat the new ones. But I can’t remember a time in my life when Australia wasn’t obsessed with a race panic of one type or another.
For political liberals, the temptation is to pretend that racism in Australia is mostly located on the radical fringes, something that flares up from time to time before our inborn tolerance reasserts itself.
In Guardian Australia just the other day, Tim Soutphommasane argued that recent anti-Muslim protests in Bendigo and Parramatta are outside the mainstream of an Australian society which is essentially multicultural.
He hoped that Malcolm Turnbull’s election would change the tone of political leadership, and thus the contours of racial politics.
But, as usual, liberal nostrums about the relationship between mainstream and fringe politics ignore the ideological and organisational links between hard right groups and the heart of the political process.
The interplay between Howard and Hanson offers an historical example. The concurrence of hard right anti-Islam rallies and a senate inquiry into Halal food offers another, were the state of the immigration system not enough to convince you.
So while “hot racism” breaks out from time to time – in Cronulla, in Bendigo – cold racism builds a gulag in the name of an orderly immigration system that will retain broad popular support, or in the name of defeating the people smugglers, or, most perversely of all, in the name of the safety of refugees.
Its appeal is to instrumental reason and to order: a more rational way forward in the midst of an unreliable electorate that only knows its own desires.
Hot racism is the thing that almost every politician will readily condemn. Cold racism is the thing that almost none will seriously challenge. By pretending that racism is an intermittent, extreme phenomenon, we allow its systemic version to flourish.
It’s true that many Australians are tolerant, and even welcoming of migrants.
But that doesn’t explain the recurring need in our politics to isolate particular racial groups as deviant, and to use them to negatively define identity and citizenship.
It doesn’t explain the Australian proclivity to found and refound the nation on the basis of racial exclusion. It doesn’t explain how the massive extension of state power in the form of detention and national security laws, all aimed pretty squarely at Muslims, has become embedded in political common sense.
Moreover, it doesn’t explain why a doctrine of official multiculturalism has failed to prevent any of this from happening