Race in Society

Protesters wear masks at Hyde Park in Sydney. One man's t-shirt reads: Black Lives Matter Here Too

Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I are both sociologists and we’ve launched a new webseries called “Race in Society.” The first season is dedicated to “Race and COVID-19.” In this first episode, we cover the inspiration for the series and why we are focusing on the pandemic.

In the video below, Alana explains how our idea for Race in Society came about. We were noticing an increased interest in critical race studies among academics, students, and the broader public. Much of this discussion replicates ideas of race from North America, which is not necessarily applicable to Australia.

As Alana says:

“Race is a global idea but it works in locally specific ways. In Australia, we cannot explain race and racism without an understanding of colonialism, or without centering the knowledge and experience of First Nations analysts. There is a solid tradition of this in Australia, starting with the work of Aileen Moreton-Robinson and the founding of the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies association. We see this series as building on and contributing to this work to show how and why race matters here.

– Alana Lentin, ‘Race in Society’

Alana goes on to describe how race has legitimated European domination in various parts of the world, including colonisation, slavery, and other facets of race in Australian society. Alana covers how race is different to culture, ethnicity and identity. She shows that a critical race perspective does not see race as interpersonal, but as systemic. This means that the logic of race exists across all social institutions, making racial inequality pervasive.

Red border, white background with Alana Lentin's photo in the corner (she is a White Jewish woman) and the "Race in Society" logo at the bottom (just tet). The quote reads: "We understand race first and foremost as a technology of rule for categorising and stratifying people. In other words, race does things. It is best understood as a set of tools - including ideas, policies, institutional mechanisms, and legal doctrines - that, when put into practice, creates hierarchy between groups of human beings, and makes the differences among us appear natural, fixed and hereditary - passed on from generation to generation."
Definition of race – Alana Lentin

Race manifests across every aspect of social life, but Australians do not engage with the significant body of scholarship and practice by race researchers, practitioners and activists. We illustrate this by diving into various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In our video, I discus how race manifests in public discourses used to describe the social and health impact of the pandemic. In daily press conferences by politicians, police and other officials, we hear the phrase, “We’re all in this together.” In a sense, this is true: the pandemic is having pervasive impact. No industry has been untouched.

However, race dynamics mean that not everyone is in this together in the same way. In our video, I cover three examples.

First, at the start of the pandemic in Australia, from February to April 2020, it was mostly White, middle class and affluent people who were initially infected overseas. They did not follow quarantine and so the infection spread across many regions. Anglo-majority suburbs were not put into specific lockdowns as a result. But at the beginning of July 2020, in Victoria, 12 multicultural suburbs were put into further restrictions. These suburbs are working class and have high proportion of migrant and refugee populations. Police, and later the military, set up mobile testing sites in these suburbs in a heavy-handed approach not used in White, Anglo-majority suburbs.

Second, the impact on who gets infected is not equal. While the so-called “first wave” of the pandemic hit overseas travellers, the “second wave” in the state of Victoria is primarily affecting low-paid, precariously employed workers in healthcare, aged care, factories and abattoirs. Many of these workers are migrants and refugees.

Third, 3,000 residents in nine social housing towers in Flemington and North Melbourne, Victoria, were given no warning before they were put into detention. They are overwhelmingly migrants and refugees of various African and Asian backgrounds. Up to 500 police officers were deployed to keep these social housing residents indoors, until they relented to testing.

In our video, I discuss how this and other management strategies of the pandemic are driven by race.

Our series will unpack other dynamics of race and the pandemic with Aboriginal and Torres Strait scholars and health practitioners and other people of colour. The next sepisodes six will cover these topics:

  1. Indigenous sovereignty and responses to COVID-19
  2. Media representations of race and the pandemic
  3. Lockdown, healthcare and racist ableism
  4. Intersectionality and the virus
  5. Policing the quarantine
  6. Economics and social costs of COVID-19

Next time, in “Indigenous sovereignty and responses to COVID-19,” we are joined by Jill Gallagher, Chief Executive Officer of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), who are leading COVID-19 pandemic responses in Victoria. Also on the panel is sociologist, Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, who is Professor of Indigenous Research at RMIT University, and author of countless critical race studies books and papers. Finally, we also speak with sociologist Dr Debbie Bargallie, Senior research fellow at Griffith University.

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Top third has the series heading: 'Race in Society presents, "Race & COVID-19." Photos of two co-hosts, Prof Alana Lentin, a White Jewish woman born in Ireland, and me, a light Brown Latina born in Peru. Writing in the lower third explains the series explores the sociology of race with Aboriginal scholars and other experts

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