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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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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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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Using sociology to think critically about Coronavirus COVID-19 studies

The lower two-thirds is an oil painting style photo of an older woman with grey hair. She has her back to us and is reading a piece of paper with a magnifying glass. The top third is the title to this post

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of public sociology because of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. What follows has been in the works for a couple of months. As previously promised, I’m now coming back to this because of the ongoing need to increase public awareness about the science of the pandemic.

Earlier in the year, I worked with some colleagues on an early literature review scoping policy responses to the pandemic, and I’ve provided feedback on evolving policy research. As an applied sociologist, my focus has been on how race, culture, disability, gender, and other socioeconomics impact how people understand and act on public health initiatives, as well as ethical considerations of COVID research “on the run.”

Since then, I’ve been keeping up with both the research and media coverage of public health responses. I’ve been providing summaries of unfolding information on my social media (primarily Facebook and Instagram stories, as well as Twitter). This started partly to address some of the misconceptions I was seeing amongst my friends and family and I’ve kept this up as it’s been the most efficient way to help people in my life better understand what the restrictions mean for them, or to correct confusing reports.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation. People are hungry for practical advice, but don’t know who to trust (they don’t know where to look for credible resources), or they feel overwhelmed with too many conflicting directions. This is known as information overload, and it leads to poor decision-making.

One of the patterns that has been especially concerning are people writing social media posts, op eds and even setting up consultancies to profiteer from COVID-19 without any health training or policy experience. This contributes to public distrust, conspiracy theories or poor discussion that is not based on evidence. People are choosing to confirm their pre-existing beliefs, rather than engaging critically with scientific information that challenges their perspective. This is known as confirmation bias. It stops people from considering new information and different points of view that might be helpful to their wellbeing.

Reading original scientific journal articles is not always possible as there is often a paywall. Plus, science papers are, by definition, published for the academic community. The language is technical, and the principles can be hard to follow for people who are not subject matter experts. This makes it more important for scientists who have access to write about science research in an accessible manner and to share findings through different communities.

While data on COVID-19 are evolving, and no one can claim to be a definitive COVID-19 expert, the best sources to trust are official sources, such as state Health Departments, epidemiologists, virologists, health practitioners who are providing front-line services (such as Aboriginal-controlled health organisations), and policy analysts who work on COVID-19 responses. Additionally, reliable news sites include the ABC News Australia live blog, Croakey and individual health researchers, such as epidemiologist Dr Zoe Hyde (University of Western Australia) on Twitter.

If you read about a study, how do you know if you can trust the conclusions? What’s the best approach if you wanted to write about a study’s findings for a broader audience, whether it’s your friends and family reading your Facebook feed, or an article in a major news site? Today’s post gives tips for how to read a study using critical thinking principles from sociology, and things to consider if you want to write about, or share, studies that you read about.

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Land Rights and the Legacy of Mabo Day

I write this as a reflection at the end of Mabo Day, marking the end of Reconciliation Week. This day commemorates the 3 June 1992 High Court ruling that recognises Native Title – land rights of the Meriam people of the Mer Islands of the Torres Strait, which opened land rights for First Nations across Australia.

On 20 May 1982, Eddie Mabo, Sam and David Passi, Celuia Mapo Salee, and James Rice lodged their land claim. The case took a decade to finalise and addressed multiple legal injustices, including the myth of terra nullius (that Australian land was unowned before colonisation), recognition of Native Title and cultural definitions of land rights, and establishing the Native Title Act.

Today’s post covers the ongoing impact and challenges flowing from the Mabo case, and the sociological issues it raises. In paricular, non-Indigenous people’s narrow awarenes about the cultural significance of land.

Eddie Mabo on the left; a black and white photograph of him in a suit. On the right is a quote from Mabo: "Oh yes, everybody knows it's Mabo land and my sister is looking after it. And as long as I want that land, it will be there for me when I go back."
Oh yes, everybody knows it’s Mabo land and my sister is looking after it. And as long as I want that land, it will be there for me when I go back.
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Police Violence in Australia

Oil painting style image of a group of protesters in front of New South Wales Court. Two of them stand on seats and wear the Aboriginal flag. The title reads, "Police violence in Australia"

It is still Reconciliation Week, and Australia is undergoing two major court cases where police have shot dead young Aboriginal people. Yet non-Indigenous people remain wilfully oblivious. We are collectively spending more energy in feeling morally superior to other countries, rather than acting towards national change. Specifically, Australian media lead with stories of “violent unrest,” “violent protests,” and “mayhem” in the USA, instead of focusing on police violence against Black victims and protesters, and providing insightful analysis on similarities to Aboriginal deaths in custody in the Australian context.

Australian social media and public commentary are preoccupied with either dismissing current events as unique to other societies (“only in America”), or posting aghast (rightfully) over police brutality overseas. We do this despite not engaging with long-running campaigns led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. It’s not that we should disengage from world events; #BlackLivesMatter is an important movement that resonates globally and deserves attention. The issue is the disproportionate focus on the USA by Australians. This maintains our perception that police brutality is an American quirk and allows non-Indigenous Australians to ignore local racial justice movements led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This post will illustrate how non-Indigenous Australians other national racism, as if it is the abhorrent opposite of our national culture. This is easier than taking the steps we need to address police brutality and racial injustice right here and now.

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Reconciliation and the ongoing impact of colonialism

Oil painting style image showing protesters carrying the Aboriginal flag

I live on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. ‘Eora’ means ‘here’ or ‘from this place.’ Twenty-nine clans belong to the Eora Nation (of what is now known as Sydney), each with their distinct culture, languages, songlines and practices. Sovereignty was never ceded. This land always was, is, and forever will be, Aboriginal land.

Yesterday was National Sorry Day and today marks the beginning of Reconciliation Week. The meanings and actions of these national events are different for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and non-Indigenous people. Here are some reflections for those of us who are settlers, and what we can do to better listen and walk in solidarity with First Nations.

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And I for Truth

Part 2 of 3 of my visual sociology for 2019. Take in the flavours of April to June. We start with a look at the architecture of inclusion. Then we go backwards, so you may join me in a feminist retaliation. Let’s then reminisce over racial justice at the Sydney Writers Festival, and think deeply on Aboriginal women’s family bonds through the wonderful play, Barbara and the Camp Dogs. We go on to trace the joys of the Finders Keepers market, the Sydney Comedy Festival, and Peruvian treats. We bear witness to the destruction being imposed by the Adani mine. I also bring you a cornucopia of the sociology of trolleys, and a special guest appearance by the enigmatic Bubsy.

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Whitewashing Race Studies

In the lower half is a white background, with the spines of two white books on the right handside. At the top is the title: whitewashing race studies

How does a White male student with no expertise in critical race studies, with little sociological training, publish a peer reviewed article in one of the most prestigious journals in our field? How is this possible when the paper misrepresents the Black Lives Matter movement and intersectionality theory? How does this paper make it through peer review to publication in less than six months? ‘Black Lives Matter at Five: Limits and Possibilities,’ by Adam Szetela, was submitted to Ethnic and Racial Studies on 24 January 2019, accepted for publication on 21 June 2019 and published online on 18 July. The expediency of the peer review process, given the content of the article, warrants strong evaluation.

I express my gratitude to Dr Shantel Gabrieal Buggs, who brought this to public attention, and who led a robust discussion on Twitter with sociologists and scholars from other fields. I’m using this and other examples as a case study of whiteness in academic publishing.

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