Our racist habits

Sydney Morning Herald
Date: August 31 2006
by Peter Manning

THE day after the Cronulla riot in December last year Channel Nine posed a blunt question on its website. "Do you think Australia has a race problem?" Throughout the day the voting ran overwhelmingly, by a three to one margin, for a "yes" answer to the question. By 4.15pm, when I logged off, 49,371 had agreed, 14,174 disagreed.

Despite John Howard and Kim Beazley racing into print to assure the country we were not racists, ordinary Australians knew in their hearts we had a problem.

The Cronulla riot was the peak of an ugly summer. A mixed-race cricket team from South Africa took great exception to the behaviour of fans at every cricket ground around the country. The Proteas found it hard to believe that vicious racist slurs - calls of "kaffirs" and so on - would be hurled at them from the Aussie crowds when these things had disappeared at home.

In rugby union, one of Australia's best forwards, Justin Harrison, a man of otherwise impeccable character, found himself vilified after admitting to racist remarks in a Super 12 game in Johannesburg.

And when it came to one-day cricket matches, the Sri Lankans received the same treatment. They copped "black c---" and worse, chanted by drunk fans from the Sydney Cricket Ground sidelines. And that from the M.A. Noble stand, reserved for august members of the ground.

It would be comforting to dismiss the abuse as the outpourings of a mad minority. But the truth that hurts is that this is too consistent and continuing. How much of this abuse exists because the abusers are sure their insults reflect the feelings of the crowd around them?

I remember being at a crucial Bulldogs versus Roosters semi-final a few years ago when a bunch of Roosters fans in the Sydney Football Stadium members enclosure began taunting champion goalkicker Hazem el Masri because of his Arab and Muslim background. Their abuse was disgusting and, despite objections, continued all match.

The bete noir of the Sri Lankan cricketers, of course, is one Aussie umpire, Darrell Hair. There is no suggestion that Hair is racist; he always calls the game as he see it, quite fearlessly at times. But that may not convince the Sri Lankans. It took nearly a decade for them to get over their objections to Hair calling their world-class spinner as a chucker. While the matter of Muttiah Muralitharan was determined in technical terms, the Sri Lankans avoided Hair.

Pakistan's cricketers, too - even before the latest incident in England - have taken exception to Hair.

The team's captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, told Britain's Guardian newspaper that the team felt persecuted by Hair. "Yes, definitely," he said, "we've already sent a letter before this to the [International Cricket Council], asking that he does not umpire in Pakistan games. But still he is doing it."

Whether Hair had sufficient evidence to accuse the Pakistanis of ball-tampering after the ball had been belted around the oval and grandstands for 56 overs - against any evidence from an array of television cameras - will be discussed this weekend when the International Cricket Council meets in the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai. In the meantime, correspondence leaked last weekend shows Hair wanting a financial exit package from the ICC.

The notion of the "tricky Oriental" has been around for a long time. The old attitudes towards "the Orient" had their roots in Greek literature, then in medieval poems, compounded by the Crusades and later developed by Shakespeare, 19th-novelists like Flaubert and imperial poets like Tennyson. If you add in the Christian demonisation of Muslims, starting with Dante and continuing today, then Oriental Muslim cricketers start to look pretty untrustworthy.

The powerhouse for cricket is now the subcontinent, not the Old Dart and the colonials Down Under. That's where the money is and that's where the game increasingly sees its future. Snubbing Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka is Canute-like in the extreme.

Meanwhile, we need to face reality. Namely, how to deal with our continuing affliction about race. Dean Jones's recent off-air remarks from the commentary box relating to a Muslim South African cricketer - remarks that got him instantly sacked by his Arab employers - were quickly defended by Howard, who couldn't see how they were racist. As John Hewson said on ABC TV's Enough Rope, Howard is what you call "old school".

Howard has spent a decade playing the "race card" (mainly against Arab and Muslim Australians) and now it's having its effects not just in his electoral wins and in the Cronulla riot but in his favourite game of cricket.

If we keep going the way we're going, it will be us, not South Africa or Pakistan, who are the international pariahs.

Peter Manning is the former head of ABC TV News and Current Affairs and author of Us and Them: A Journalist's Investigation of Media, Muslims and the Middle East, to be published by Random House tomorrow.