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Mistreating minorities: Victoria Police and racial profiling

Victoria Police recently announced an inquiry into their public relations and cultural awareness training, after a group of young African Australians claimed they had been victims of over-policing and…

Victoria Police will hold an inquiry to investigate its treatment of different ethnic groups, after settlement of a civil case involving allegations of racial profiling. AAP/Julian Smith

Victoria Police recently announced an inquiry into their public relations and cultural awareness training, after a group of young African Australians claimed they had been victims of over-policing and racial profiling. Only a few days earlier, the State Coroner requested that police reinvestigate the death of a young Ethiopian Australian, Michael Atakelt, in Melbourne’s western suburbs in 2011 .

Many Australians of African backgrounds are visibly different. By this I mean they stand out due to attributes that can include colour, dress and name. Like another group of visibly different migrants, Indian students, they have also become targets of discrimination at the hands of Victoria Police.

During the investigation into Michael Atakelt’s death, members of the Australian Ethiopian community expressed a genuine lack of trust in the actions of Victoria Police. Representatives of Muslim communities are echoing the complaints made by African Australians about racial profiling and over-policing. These examples are evidence of institutional racism within the police force. Far from being one-off incidents or exceptions to the rule, increasingly these cases help us obtain a picture of how racism is felt by those that are “visibly different”. Such incidents will come as no surprise to Indigenous Australians, particularly young men, who face similar discrimination and racism.

When Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay announced the public inquiry into police practices, he spoke of “these communities” as if somehow African Australians existed in isolation from the “rest of Australia”. His words, rather than his actions, indicate that until we open our eyes and accept the diversity within Australian society, real and meaningful social inclusion will never happen.

As a nation, Australia is enriched economically, socially and culturally by successive waves of migrants and refugees. Our immigration program is lauded as a secret to our nation’s success and an invaluable asset.

But despite Australia’s relatively successful model of multiculturalism, and migrant and refugee settlement, recent reports of systemic racism within the Victorian police force including racial profiling of African Australians, highlight unacceptable gaps in the rights and treatment of Australian residents and citizens of African backgrounds.

So who are Australia’s African communities? Australia’s African communities are comprised of highly diverse linguistic, cultural and religious groups who have been settling in Australia on permanent and temporary bases as skilled migrants and refugees over many decades. Department of Immigration and Citizenship figures cited in a 2011 Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiry report, indicated that there were 248,699 African-born people living in Australia who had arrived under both the migrant and humanitarian programs.

A significant proportion of the African-born community originate from South Africa, the sixth-largest source country for temporary migrants. Many others are former refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea and Somalia, and to a lesser extent Burundi, Congo, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It is questionable whether subsuming such broad diversity under the label “African Australian”, reflects the multiple communities of people from African backgrounds who reside here.

In 2010, the Australian Human Rights Commission conducted a major report into human rights and social inclusion issues facing African Australians. They found African Australians experienced significant discrimination when seeking employment and finding housing that in turn led to social exclusion. Community leaders like Dr Berhan Ahmed, of the African Think Tank, have called for wider action against racism, as have the young men involved in this case. The Human Rights Commission has also launched a major public anti-racism campaign.

Nonetheless, racist attitudes in Australia remain pervasive. Without diminishing the injury felt by Australians of African backgrounds at the hands of police, outrage about racism and discrimination should be given a wide focus. Indeed laying bare the harm caused by systemic racism and discrimination should extend to other institutions and social spheres.

We should start by asking what we can do to support Australians of African backgrounds achieve the social inclusion they strive for. This includes celebrating achievement and acknowledging success. Greater effort is needed to ensure that institutions including the police force reflect Australia’s multicultural composition.

By reducing Australians of African backgrounds to narrow stereotypes based primarily on their appearance, we all lose. Instead, we should be harnessing the immense economic, social and cultural potential of our African Australian communities as much as we can. It begins with challenging our perceptions and responding to new arrivals with understanding rather than a heavy-hand.

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15 Comments sorted by

  1. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Oh dear me, now I see the term African Australians appear in print.

    When people came from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Greece and a myriad of other countries, the became New Australians, not English Australians or Greek Australians or Italian Australians.

    Their children grew up, mixed up and married and formed the wonderful mix of our population we have now.

    The author appears to be encouraging young African immigrants to identify themselves as African Australians rather…

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    1. Jim KABLE


      In reply to Gerard Dean

      I can't really know what my ancestors called themselves in terms of ethnicity in the early days - maybe they were East Anglians or from Suffolk and Norfolk - or born-free - or Cornstalks. But my paternal grand-mother (Scottish) couldn't open her mouth without announcing difference - the same as my maternal grand-father - a Kentish man. But though arriving in Australia aged 19 and feeling himself Australia (having been a soldier with the Australian Forces in the Great War) till he passed away when…

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  2. John C Smith


    Real refugees who were from Africa has problems at their early years like the Vietnamese. They have almost settled in perfectly and is a part of us compared to some who still carry their baggage.

  3. Peter Seidel

    Public Interest Law partner, Arnold Bloch Leibler, Adjunct Professor of Law, La Trobe University School of Law

    Melissa Phillips' article is spot on. Congratulations Melissa.

    Along with Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre and barristers Jeremy Rapke QC, Emrys Nekvapil and Phoebe Knowles, my firm -Arnold Bloch Leibler - represented the young men in the case that settled earlier this week, which Melissa referred to in her article.

    In his press conference about the case the Chief Commissioner said he believes his officers do not take into account the colour of a person’s skin when they police…

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    1. Melissa Phillips

      Honorary Fellow at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Peter Seidel

      Thanks for your feedback and comments Peter - and congratulations to you and the rest of the legal team for shining a spotlight on some very worrying racial profiling practices. I agree that the enquiry is a key mechanism for change based on wider community input.

      Racism and racial profiling is not an easy subject to address in our community but until we honesty face prejudice there can be no meaningful change. I can only hope we can find the courage to do the 6 young men who spoke out proud in our future advocacy and action.

    2. John C Smith


      In reply to Melissa Phillips

      Read this for the Indian students who are actually Indian Coolies (workers) who work more than 20 hours and hardly study @ Indian owned study time certificate factories.
      This is a real story to disprove the myths about us and the people in the Hindian Pond: (Indian Ocean)
      A young boy wakes up in the middle of the night and goes for a walk about in the local park. He has been let down by his governors. He has lost his culture to new comers who have taken over his environment. The culture is called…

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  4. Kim Darcy


    Another day, another "racism panic" beat up. Always follow the money trail in these beat-ups. Always ask, "who benefits" from inflaming race discourse.

  5. Kim Darcy


    Melissa, sorry, but the "racist attacks on Indian students" campaign was shown to be a hoax. In fact, Indians are statistically UNDER-represented as victims of crime. The hoax was cooked-up by Ted Ballieu adviser, Gautam Gupta, leader of the Federation of Indian Students of Australia (FISA), in order to try and discredit Premier John Brumby.
    In fact, of the small number of actual violent crimes, many were committed by Indians, themselves. Three murders, and that stupid bloke who poured petrol over himself, trying to pull off a car insurance scam. Apart from Indians themselves, other perpetrators of singling out Indians for violence were Muslims of Pakistani origin.

  6. Gary Myers

    logged in via LinkedIn

    "248,699 African-born people living in Australia"
    I wonder about the proportion of white South Africans (and similar from Zimbabwe etc) in there, and whether the people being targetted were "African Australians" or, to be blunt, black.
    There's a problem in trying to avoid inoffensive language when describing behaviour that is offensive.

    1. John C Smith


      In reply to Gary Myers

      The largest may be from Egypy and could be other muslims mostly black from other countries in the African continent. There is a sizable Indian community from African continent who have transmigrated here.. Lot from Mauritius, Soputh Africa, Uganda, Kenya and other former British don=minions. Racism is not just black and white.

  7. John C Smith


    Probono work is cheap advertising. In a multicultural (multi racial, religios, lingual, sexual) profiing of different groups is called for the proper governance of the lot as well as each. Profiling is carried out by marketeers, Politicos, govt agencies and by individuals. Some profiling may be adverese and others may be favourable.

  8. Leigh Burrell

    Trophy hunter

    "Representatives of Muslim communities are echoing the complaints made by African Australians about racial profiling and over-policing. These examples are evidence of institutional racism within the police force."

    Muslims aren't a race and a handful of complaints aren't evidence of institutional anything. God help us if policy makers are ever influenced by your hysterical, paranoid ruminations.

  9. Tony Grant


    Yes, they haven't done a "bad job" on Craig Thomson either, it must be the former union leader from the Victorian coppers union that is adding a bit more mongrel?

    Not all union leaders end up in the ALP?

  10. Ivana CSAR O.A.M.

    Mediator-Mentor-Facilitator at NGO

    Perhaps intercultural sensitivity should be a key performance indicator for the Commissioner [ and Minister ? ] , as well as members of the police force .
    As an Australian by choice , I propose a discount on my taxes if treated in an excluding and discriminatory manner .