Media Representations of Race and the Pandemic

Sign saying 'stop the spread' with Chinese writing. In a background is a playground

In Episode 3 of Race in Society (video below), Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I spoke with Dr Summer May Finlay and Dr Karen Schamberger about how mainstream media create sensationalist accounts of the pandemic, and spread a moral panic about racialised people. A moral panic is when a group or an event is seen as a threat to social values, usually in a time of great social change, such as the pandemic. A moral panic whips up fear of particular groups, especially racial minorities. At the same time, it protects the interests of people at the top of the racial hierarchy, which in Australia, is white people of European descent. Even though we filmed this discussion 10 months ago, the commentary illuminates the current COVID-19 crisis.

Three states in Australia are presently under a strict COVID-19 lockdown: New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. New South Wales is experiencing a major Delta variant outbreak, which is highly contagious. It has spread to the other states through working-class workers, who do not have the luxury of working from home. Similarly to what happened in the harsh Melbourne lockdown in 2020, residents in migrant communities have been placed into a tougher lockdown relative to others, even as they are required to continue working, and submit to COVID testing every three days (surveillance testing).

In early-July, 200 police were sent to South Western Sydney, where at least half the population was born overseas, to enforce the Public Health Order. Since then, reports on infringement notices feature in the daily press conferences. This did not happen at the beginning of this latest outbreak, when infection was exclusively spreading in Bondi, an affluent suburb where the majority of residents are white, Anglo-Australians.

On the morning of 24 July, the New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner announced 246 people had received infringement notices in the past 24 hours, highlighting the case of a grieving family gathering to mourn, implying they were from a non-English speaking background. The Minister for Health spoke heavily about ‘multicultural’ communities not following the rules by visiting family members who don’t live in the same house. By the afternoon, 3,500 anti-lockdown protesters marched through central Sydney without masks, being violent, and yet only 90 people received infringement notices and 57 people were arrested. The race of the protesters—who were overwhelmingly white—has not been a focus of media reports.

Public discourse about the COVID-19 outbreaks continues to be racially coded in media and in press conferences. Blame is placed on multicultural communities for not listening to public health messages, even though the majority of cases originate in ‘essential’ workplaces that are not required to shut down. As some communities remain confused about public health messages, state responses have been heavily criticised for not promoting culturally-appropriate public communication campaigns, while targeting migrants with a heavy police presence.

Today, I detail the racialised dynamics of the current outbreak, and then delve into our Race in Society series, where experts place the pandemic into broader context.

Dr Summer May Finlay is a Yorta Yorta woman and Public Health Researcher at the Universities of Wollongong and Canberra. In the video below, she details how Aboriginal community controlled health organisations have effectively dealt with COVID-19 using social marketing campaigns.

We also spoke with Dr Karen Schamberger; an independent curator and historian. She covers the history of Australian sinophobia (the fear of China, its people and or its culture), and how anti-Chinese racism plays out in media reports on racism and the COVID-19 pandemic. This issue remains pertinent, given that the suburbs under strict lockdown have relatively large Asian populations.

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Applied Sociology of Qualifications

A young white woman stands next to an older white man in an industrial workshop. They are both smiling looking at her laptop

Cross-posting research I’ve led, which examines how to help students complete their qualifications. Our research shows that more apprentices and trainees will complete their training if students are given six behaviourally informed SMS prompts. Messages provided timely and practical advice on workplace rights, and where to seek support if they were struggling. Our results equate to 16% fewer learners dropping out. Our intervention led to a 7:1 return on investment.

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Political Attacks on Critical Race Theory

Crowd of protesters in Sydney

Almost 530 researchers (including me) have signed the Open Letter Against Racism. Critical race theory is an academic field under uninformed and unwarranted political attack in Australia and in other nations. See an excerpt below and please read the full letter.

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LGBTQIA Inclusion at Work

A window with bars and a wall with a stencil of a Black woman's face. Text reads: LGBTQIA inclusion at work

Ending discrimination against gender and sexual minorities requires major social transformation. Institutional change is paramount. As you keep fighting to make your organisation accountable, here are three small but impactful things you can do at your workplace to end this form of discrimination.

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Stop Black Deaths in Custody

Protesters march through Sydney. One of them wears a tshirt that says "Bla(c)k lives matter." Many carry communist flags. A large banner in front has the colours of the Aboriginal flag

There is no more pressing national issue in Australia than justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It has been 30 years since the publication of the report on The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The Royal Commission reviewed 99 deaths in custody between January 1980 to May 1989. However, as of April 2021, 474 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since the report was delivered in April 1991. This includes five people in past month alone. No police or corrections officers involved in these deaths have ever been convicted, despite CCTV footage, expert witnesses, and other evidence.

If you only do one thing thing today, please sign this petition, asking the Prime Minister meet with families whose loved ones have died in custody.

The Royal Commission made 339 recommendations. Three decades later, the recommedations overwhelmingly remain unfulfilled.

There are many Aboriginal families who are actively fighting for justice, through various coronial inquests and other legal battles. By taking one minute to sign the petition, your quick but valuable action will ensure Aboriginal families directly affected by the failures of the criminal justice system can finally be heard directly by Australia’s leaders.

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Public Sociology and the Pandemic

Oil painting of a subway sign about COVID-19. It shows an imprint of two hands. The message reads: have you washed your hands?

It’s been a long while! Over the past couple of months, in my paid work, I’ve been co-leading a large randomised control trial in public health. Hoping we can publish results in the new year. Our team is also busy researching issues of technology and safety. In my personal research, Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I wrapped up series 1 of Race in Society. We covered media representations; the lockdown and ableism; intersectionality; policing; and economics. I’ll bring you write ups of other episodes soon, or head to our YouTube to watch the videos.

In case you missed it, here are two interviews I gave earlier in the year, on the sociology of COVID-19. Unfortunately, the topics of moral panics and misinformation remain relevant.

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Indigenous Sovereignty and Responses to COVID-19

People march during the Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney. One man holds up a sign. Another person holds up a large Aboriginal flag

In Episode 2 of Race in Society, Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I 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. She discusses how the pandemic amplifies existing health and social inequalities. Also on the panel is sociologist, Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, who is Professor of Indigenous Research at RMIT University, and author of countless critical race books, including, The White Possessive‘. She demonstrates how her theorisation of Aboriginal sovereignty disrupts how the pandemic is currently understood. Finally, we also speak with sociologist Dr Debbie Bargallie, Senior research fellow at Griffith University, and author of the excellent new release, ‘Unmasking the Racial Contract: Indigenous voices on racism in the Australian Public Service.’ She talks about how Aboriginal people are excluded from social policy, which has compounded poor decision-making on public health during the pandemic.

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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.

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Applied Sociology in Rural and Remote Education

Title at the top reads: "Applied Sociology in Training and Education." A woman and man sit at a table. She's writing and he's pointing at her work. They're both Asian and Brown

This is the second of two posts showing how applied sociology is used in a multi-disciplinary behavioural science project to improve social policy and program delivery.

We scaled our previous trials that used behavioural science to increase pre-service teachers’ uptake of professional placements in rural and remote New South Wales (NSW). We used timely and personalised communications, simplified research on placements, and offered a group placement experience. These interventions led to 55 pre-service teachers completing their placements at geographically isolated schools, with 100% of them saying they would consider taking up long-term employment at a rural or remote school in the future.

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