Race, Class and the Delta Outbreak

Entrance to a supermarket. Stickers on the ground say "please stand here." Workers are busy in the background

This is post was previously published as part of my previous blog, Media Representations of Race and the Pandemic.

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”).

Public discourse about the COVID-19 outbreaks continues to be racially coded in media articles and in press conferences. This contributes to a moral panic about racialised people. 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.

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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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The Economics and Social Costs of COVID-19

Aerial view of Sydney Customs House, a large Building at Circular Quay, Sydney

In Episode Seven of our Race in Society series—the final episode of season 1 on “Race and COVID-19″—Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I are joined by two guests to discuss The Economics and Social Costs of COVID-19. We examine the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on undocumented migrant workers, whose labour is being exploited.

The economy depends upon the work of racialised people, exposing them to higher risk due to casualised frontline services, which have kept the health system and other businesses going throughout lockdown. At the same time, racialised people are provided inadequate protections against infection, including poor personal protective equipment.

Our first guest, Sanmati Verma, is an Accredited Specialist in Immigration Law. She discusses the legal issues faced by temporary visa holders and migrants, as they lack access to economic security. Our other guest is Professor Sujatha Fernandes, who is Professor of Political Economy and Sociology at the University of Sydney. Her research explores the uses and misuses of storytelling to shape understandings of the political activism of racialised people. She discusses how “curated storytelling” narrows the public’s engagement with economic rights during the pandemic.

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Intersectionality and the Virus

Entrance gates to a train station. Stickers say "stay home if you are sick"

In Episode 5 of our Race in Society series, Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I lead a panel exploring the impact of race, gender, and socioeconomics on COVID-19, through a lens of intersectionality. Writing in 1989, Professor Kimberle Crenshaw showed that industrial law in the USA treated racial and sexual discrimination as distinct experiences. She showed that Black women experience both racism and sexism simultaneously, and so the impact of each is compounded. Professor Patricia Hill Collins and other theorists have also shown that, without using this term specifically, people in the Global South have used intersectionality as an analytical tool, since at least the 1800s, to grapple with the complexity of discrimination. In Australia, we look to the works of Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, such as her book, “Talkin’ Up to the White Woman,” which examines how white feminist research has established authority by mobilising whiteness and enacting power over Aboriginal women. Intersectionality is not an identity, but rather a way to understand power relations in society, as well as social inequality, by looking at the interconnections of social division, including race, gender, disability, sexuality, and class.

In the video below, we speak with Karl Briscoe, the Chief Executive Officer of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Health Worker Association (NATSIHWA). His organisation has been proactive in producing resources throughout the pandemic, from advice to Black Lives Matter protesters, as well as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Professionals Resource Toolkit. He discusses how intersections of race and health impact the work by Aboriginal healthcare workers. We then speak with Professor Karen Farquharson, who has studied race in Australia, South Africa, and the United States. She explores how ideas of whiteness are used to dehumanise Black people, and how this has led to disparate health outcomes during the pandemic. Finally, Dr Nilmini Fernando is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Griffith University and a scholar of Black and post-colonial feminisms. She discusses a gap in the domestic and family violence sector, with respect to how violence is measured and categorised. Specifically, its inadequate attention to intersectionality. She notes that, by focusing on colonial definitions of violence, women of colour are inadequately protected when trying to rebuild their lives during social isolation.

Race in Society: Intersectionality and the Virus
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Media Representations of Race and the Pandemic

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

Postscript: see a companion analysis in a separate post, “Race, Class and the Delta Outbreak

In Episode 3 of Race in Society (video below), Associate Professor Alana Lentin and I lead a panel about how mainstream media create sensationalist accounts of the pandemic, and the proactive ways in which Aboriginal people and Asian people in particular lead their own responses. We spoke with Dr Summer May Finlay, a Yorta Yorta woman and Public Health Researcher at the Universities of Wollongong and Canberra. In our video below, she details how Aboriginal community controlled health organisations have effectively dealt with COVID-19 using social marketing campaigns. We also chatted 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.

Media and officials continue to blame racial minorities in a way that does not feature for white-majority communities, some of whom are boldly defying the lockdown. Why does this happen? Our Race in Society series provides broader cultural and historical context.

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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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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.

Continue reading Reconciliation and the ongoing impact of colonialism