If you’re black in Oz, don’t bother asking for a beer

Yesterday, I read a news report that announced the Australian government’s new plan to outlaw the sale of alcohol and pornography to Aboriginals in the Northern Territories.  The decision came on the heels of a report that suggested child sexual abuse among Aboriginals was caused by rampant alcoholism and pornography; the law will now tie Aboriginal welfare payments to drinking, a fact that angered at least one Aboriginal leader who said, “If they’re going to do that, they’re going to have to do that with every single person in Australia, not just black people.” While the law is currently only being considered for the Northern Territories, and will be reviewed after six months for effectiveness, politicians are considering whether the law should apply to Aboriginals across the country.

 It may be true that we are not all created equal when it comes to alcohol. For example, I had a friend in El Paso who was half Chinese and half Mexican; he would get staggering drunk after two beers and still be drunk the next day when we met for lunch. He said he clearly had the Asian gene that did not allow him to metabolize alcohol. I’ve discovered in recent months that alcohol is a trigger for my migraine. BUT, it is equally true that a law like this that discriminates based on race, that is applied wholesale to peoples of one racial background and is not applied wholesale to peoples of other racial backgrounds, is obviously unjust and, well, racist. Besides, if the law is extended across the country, how will the courts decide the definition of “Aboriginal”? Will only full-blooded Aboriginals  be subject to the law? Will people with 1/8 blood be subject? And what about all those mixed-race children that, for years, were taken from their Aboriginal mothers and placed for adoption with white families because of the governmental policy to “breed out” the Aboriginal in them? (Many of those children, now adults, don’t have any knowledge of their background.) Will the government now seek them out to ban them from alcohol use, too?

It seems like this law may create a lot of problems–and for sure, it will make the situation between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals more tense than it already is.

Comments 5

  1. Erik

    Pretty silly. That idea has all the hallmarks to me of legislation designed to send a message to particular voting blocs that lawmakers are Doing Something(TM).

    I’m curious to know how you use the word “racist”, as well. I use it to imply that someone is making a value judgement between ethnicities, but more and more I’ve heard it used in the same way I use the word “prejudiced”.

  2. Jess

    No, your definition of racism is the same one I use, which is why I use it in this context–this strikes me as racist because it is a law that’s being applied to people of one ethnicity and not to another ethnicity. People can have prejudice of all sorts that has nothing to do with race.

  3. Erik

    Now that I’ve read the original story, I have to disagree. Yes, the law is ethnically discriminatory (for now, as I suspect Howard’s govt would love to ban hardcore pornography everywhere in Australia), which is how I use the word “prejudiced”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that one culture is being relegated to subhuman status.

    Maybe racism would be a reason people would accept such a law, but on the surface it sounds like the lawmakers are trying to deal with a real problem, however foolishly and short-sightedly.

    I thought the key para was this:

    The plan angered some Aboriginal leaders, who said it was the kind of government behavior that has disenfranchised Aborigines and created the problems in the first place. They also complained they had not been consulted; the government had not previously indicated it was considering such action.

    I just love it when governments don’t bother consulting the people whose problems they want to solve. Ethnically discriminatory, I can see; I don’t see any evidence yet that the law itself is racist. (I don’t have to wait to predict that it will be utterly ineffective.)

  4. Jess

    I agree that they are trying to solve a real problem, but they will only create problems with this legislation. Methinks you are splitting hairs by differentiating between “ethnically discriminatory” and “racism.”

  5. Erik

    After pondering it for the weekend, I realized why the difference is important to me; as a geneticist, I’m strongly trained to look for connections between obvious, easily observable characteristics and those less obvious and ask “do they go together, or am I fooled by a small sample size?” If I see a type of plant with an odd shape to the leaves and notice that the odd-shaped ones seem to have a lot of aphids crawling all over them, it is normal and natural for me to try to see if the same thing that causes the funny shape also causes susceptibility to aphids. I don’t automatically go and look at other plant types for funny leaf shapes because it wouldn’t likely give me any more information, and I certainly don’t make any kind of value judgements on the plant types as I’m doing the investigation.

    In the same way, I remember when Jimmy the Greek was fired for saying that “The black is the better athlete… and he’s bred to be the better athlete”. As a geneticist, I could look at that as a working hypothesis, although it is also an ethnically discriminatory statement. He was fired because linking “blackness” with anything else was considered racist, period, end of story. Anyone who said “hm, I wonder what gene combinations helped make the great black basketball players so awesome” and tried to track it through their descendents would automatically be labeled a racist, simply for trying to make the connection. That irritates me quite a bit, since I think there is a treasure trove in the human genome that is inaccessible largely due to this sensitivity.

    Whether making that distinction is splitting hairs depends on your perspective, but I think I can give an example of how different the two are. I remember years ago hearing about a hispanic woman who tried to rent an apartment in Chicago from an asian landlady. The landlady refused her, saying “Oh, you’re latino; latinos like loud music.” (The article was about housing descrimination and renter’s rights.) That’s ethnically descriminatory, but it’s a far cry from “I don’t rent to latinos because they’re worthless.”

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