Saturday, 24 March 2012

Effects of Endemic Racism on Aboriginal Suicide

Aboriginal children—unlike disenchanted, dislocated and disaffected non-Aboriginal youth—are socialised from birth to an endemic and all-pervasive racism. Racism means that Aborigines are perceived as different because of their ‘physical’ attributes, such as colour. These differences are equated with social characteristics,
such as culture or lifestyle. These physical-social characteristics are considered socially significant. And then, most importantly, the perceiver believes he is therefore justified either in having negative attitudes towards people with those physically-based social attributes, or in taking some action against them.

Racism is more than prejudice. The latter is a mind-set, a mere predisposition. In the thirteenth century, St Thomas Aquinas phrased it as ‘thinking ill of others without sufficient warrant’. Racism is prejudice which is acted upon.

In a hostile world, every racial or ethnic minority, every marginalised group in society, learns to cope with an all-pervasive discrimination if they are to survive and flourish. Many racially discriminatory attitudes and practices are passively accepted, absorbed and, in effect, tolerated by the defined group. Other attitudes and practices are more direct and hurtful, and cannot readily be handled or shrugged off as ‘a fact of life’.

(i) Employment
In several of the towns in this study, a number of men in their 40s and 50s talked to us, often with pride and pleasure, about their years of employment as stockmen, sheep-shearers, fencing contractors, vegetable-pickers and cotton-chippers. They tended to see themselves as a dying breed, with few similar options now available to them or to their children. Jobs are now perceived almost exclusively as CDEP occupations, limited by budgets, profit opportunities which may come from good contracts, or by CDEP programs which are often not really work but simply the occupation of time.

Jobs are seen in terms of what is available exclusively within Aboriginal communities, not within the mainstream. While CDEP commends itself as occupation which restores pride and dignity, it has nevertheless a negative value in that it denies people any incentive, and further closes the already limited outside world.

Jobs in towns for young Aboriginal males and females are rare. In 1997, only two Aboriginal girls in Moree had supermarket checkout jobs, and no boys were employed by town enterprises. In Narrabri, an Aboriginal girl could not obtain work experience in a retail shop, the owner confessing (with chagrin) to the girl’s mother, an old school friend, that he would lose customers if the daughter was seen ‘up front’ in the store. In 1997, a bright young man in Gunnedah, with a Higher School Certificate, made 53 unsuccessful job applications. In one coastal town, the meat works, with a staff of over a thousand, employs only three Aboriginal men. However, the town boasts an Aboriginal watchmaker.

This pattern pervades New South Wales. Employment of Aborigines exposes them to, amongst other things, rejection by non-Aboriginal society. So the Aborigines become reliant on extremely limited opportunities and resources. The only world, outside of the CDEP world, into which Aborigines can move is the sphere of support services—for Aborigines. In our study, there were perhaps 60 men (and two women)employed by the Police Service as ACLOs. The list of people who were interviewed shows the available agency employment: land councils, legal aid services, medical services, Aboriginal corporations, mental health units, Aboriginal rehabilitation centres, and so on. While no Aborigines or non-Aborigines could complain about Aboriginal staff servicing their own organisations, it has to be recognised that that is the only service employment available to them. Exclusions and restrictions ,once enforced by law, have been maintained, albeit through social attitudes.

It should be noted that unemployment and unemployment benefits area norm in Aboriginal life. These financial benefits do not remove the feelings of alienation and exclusion among Aboriginal youth. They see themselves as un wanted in mainstream Australian society. And even though there is group ‘togetherness’ in this sense of rejection, and a degree of social integration in being a band of unemployed or unemployable youth, there is still the overwhelming Durkheimian sense of socialisolation.

(ii) Housing
Without exception, every town in this study had a shortage of Aboriginal housing. Every informant insisted that real estate agents discriminated against prospective Aboriginal tenants. A few agents denied this, and when I published a newspaper feature in December 1997 which referred to this, I received several long letters of ‘correction’ and denunciation from aggrieved townspeople. [There are ways in which housing discrimination can be empirically tested, but this must be left to others.] Because the Aboriginal evidence was often highly specific as to names, places and date, my disposition is to accept it.

Housing has always been an acute problem. Aboriginal housing authorities and funding bodies really do not know how many people to cater for. Available houses are constructed as standard, western homes, predicated on nuclear families of one set of parents and perhaps three children. Rarely have projects encompassed the structure of extended Aboriginal family life. Overcrowding, lack of privacy (such as a desk at which to study), and lack of personal space produce an element of ‘claustrophobia’. Certainly, as the young people insist, it produces a need for space—which means the streets.

(iii) Sport
Elsewhere I have discussed the importance of sport in Aboriginal life, arguing that sport is more essential in sustaining Aboriginal life than it is in non-Aboriginal society. Sport has also been a major factor in reducing Aboriginal juvenile delinquency: where there is active competition, and access to it, delinquency declines. In the absence of competition, delinquency escalates quite markedly.

Sport is relevant to the suicide pattern, in the sense that it is purposive and purposeful. It has simple, clear goals; it has well-worn and well-known methods of achieving them; it has inbuilt mechanisms for belonging, for loyalty and for treating disloyalty; it has uniforms which signify true membership and equality; it has elaborate ritual and its own special idiom; it has support groups, fans, audiences; it has, always, the promise of rewards at best, of improvement at least. In 1995, I wrote that the Wilcannia Boomerangs and their victories provided some kind of raison d’être in a town where purposelessness and meaninglessness pervade.

My 1994 sport–delinquency study discussed the absence of sporting facilities and lack of access to organised competition in many communities. I drew attention to the relative absence of delinquency and suicidal behaviours in towns with active sport: in particular, Nguiu (Bathurst Island) and Barunga (Bamyili) in the Northern Territory; Port Lincoln and Gerard in South Australia; Cherbourg in Queensland; and Condobolin in New South Wales. However, despite increased attention to Aboriginal sport by the Australian Sports Commission—which has effectively taken over sports funding from ATSIC—there has been a marked regression since my 1989–91 fieldwork.

Facilities in towns vary. The Gingie Reserve near Walgett has an ‘oval’ covered in scrub, with no goalposts; Moree has the use, for a large leasing fee, of an oval with lights. Grounds, equipment and travel money are hard to come by, and expensive, but the most serious problem of all is lack of opponents. The exclusion of the Australian football team, Coomealla, from the Millewa League in 1993 meant that Aborigines in the Dareton-Wentworth area no longer had competition sport. ‘Unduly rough play’ and ‘language’ were cited as reasons for the expulsion. In Bourke, non-Aboriginal youths recently switched from Australian football to rugby union in order to avoid Aborigines. In 1998, the Aboriginal team, which had been expelled from the football league, was readmitted on appeal: whereupon the other teams withdrew from the competition. The [then] local police commander in Bourke guaranteed to meet half the travel costs of these teams, to prevent spectator violence and to ban alcohol from the matches—to no avail. The Moree rugby league has found itself in a similar situation. Sometimes the problem is not this kind of racism but a shortage of resources. In 1997–98, Menindee could not muster a team, which meant that the Group 12 competition, to which they belonged, ceased, leaving Wilcannia also without sport.

Funding for junior sport is a serious problem. Without exception, parents claimed that the costs of junior sport—for shoes, equipment, travel and registration fees—are beyond their means. Some service personnel claim that since there is money for alcohol, there should be money for sport. There is little point in debating choices: the people spending the money are exercising their preferences, and the money in question is social service benefit money, the bulk of which is unemployment relief, which in turn is deliberately predicated at a rate which is not self-sustaining.

(iv) The role of Police and Community Youth Clubs
The newer name for the once popular Police Boys’ Clubs system is Police and Community Youth Clubs, or PCYCs. Most major towns and urban centres have such clubs, until 1999 run by police staff in a separate administrative unit. Most clubs havea staff of two, and operate in buildings ranging from the palatial, as in the ex-Returned Servicemen’s Club building in Port Macquarie, to the cramped and under-equipped. Each club has a board, comprising interested citizens. Sponsorships and donations must be sought, and operational funds raised. The police staff are paid by the Police Service.

I have long been an admirer of the work done by, in my view, under-paid and ill-recognised youth workers. They come to the job with little training and no avenues of promotion. The officer who seeks PCYC work is seen by colleagues to be stepping outside the promotion lines. During my fieldwork, the Police Service commissioned an enquiry into the future of PCYCs. Most staff were jittery about the outcome, fearing the truth of a rumour that they were either to be closed down, or the service operated and staffed solely by civilians. In the end, the decision was that PCYCs would continue with police staff, but that the officers in each club would come under part of the area or local commander’s staff, to be directed as to the time spent in PCYC work or in general police duties.

PCYCs are often ‘the only game in town’. Clubs—with staff, gyms, playing areas, equipment, sometimes fields—are open seven days a week, with very small membership fees. The staff are often the closest that Aboriginal youth come to having ‘enlightened witnesses’ in their lives: people who see them regularly, observe patterns of dysfunctional or reactive behaviour, are aware of their lack of food and their poor health. These clubs are the greatest opportunity for an intimate, non-confrontational interaction between Aboriginal youth and the police. It is a relationship capable of producing care and trust, of ‘witness’ and assistance.

There are, however, negative aspects. Several PCYCs are inappropriately staffed. Some staff are uninterested and bored. Some even dislike Aborigines. Some try hard, but their clubs are in areas remote from Aboriginal living, or in areas where Aborigines feel ill at ease. Some officers have taken their services to a community hall in areas where Aborigines live, as in Tamworth, since the youngsters will not come to them. One former senior PCYC officer, now on general duties in Kempsey, organised a mobile PCYC, a large truck fitted out with movable equipment, and computers on board for driving-licence instruction. The truck moves to where the youth are, and where they are more likely to respond, especially to the ‘sausage sizzler’ that travels with the unit. Some officers, as in Bathurst, collect the youngsters, provide an early morning meal, deliver them to their schools, and run afternoon homework classes. The Port Macquarie club provides a bag of chips and a sandwich for a dollar and, if payment is not possible, in exchange accepts help in the kitchen.

Some PCYC officers have sought permission to give lectures on suicide to schools. They have been refused, allegedly on the ground that the school has a counsellor on staff, and that to talk openly about suicide ‘might put ideas into kids’ heads’. The PCYC concept could be the most important agency for monitoring behaviour, mitigating it, and at the same time providing an alternative to the boredom that besets so many youth in country towns. The reality is that most Aboriginal youngsters avoid these clubs, claiming that fees are too high, the premises too far away, and the regimens too formal.

(v) The attitudes of service personnel
The people who have most dealings with Aborigines are the police. There is an important historical dimension. The Aborigines Protection Act 1909 created a Board for the Protection of Aborigines—with the Inspector-General of Police (later, the Commissioner) as chairman ex officio. The Board’s task was to distribute blankets and food, maintain ‘the custody, maintenance and education of children of Aborigines’, and ‘exercise a general supervision and care over all matters affecting the interests and welfare of Aborigines’. In 1936, ‘any Aborigine (or person apparently having an admixture of Aboriginal blood) living, in the Board’s opinion, in unsanitary or undesirable conditions, can be ordered by a stipendiary magistrate to a reserve’. The Act was repealed in 1969. Most of the statutory power to ‘supervise’, protect, and to remove to reserves, lay with the police.

When ‘freedom’ came after the repeal of special legislation, and especially after the 1972 federal election, police resented the loss of their role in Aboriginal matters. For nearly two decades, police in general railed against Aboriginal legal aid: here was ‘intrusion’ into the police domain and ‘defiance’ of the authoritative and authoritarian police regulation of Aboriginal conduct.

In an ironic sense, little has changed. Police no longer have a formal or statutory role in Aboriginal affairs. Many police officers now co-operate with, and even applaud, the work of legal aid and similar agencies. A remarkable change in police culture has taken place since my first ventures into Aboriginal centres, and even since my 1989–91 fieldwork. The ‘new breed’ say the right things, for the most part, and often do the right things. Officers with inappropriate attitudes remain in some sensitive locations, but there is a much greater sense of police being ‘on side’. The irony, as I see it, is that the only people who are available to communities exhibiting distress signals are the police, whom most Aborigines still purport to despise and distrust.

Most police stations operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Much of the violence, especially of the domestic kind, occurs over weekends. The only resource people available are police, who need to act as social workers, mediators, confessors, and ‘dampeners’ where possible. Most police object to these roles, contending that they lack the necessary formal training or skills. Be that as it may, it is the ACLOs who take the burden of this work. It is this body of men and women who suffer gross overload, and are under-rewarded, in salary and status, for the work they do.

The allegation by Aborigines and by police is that the normal ‘welfare’ agencies—the departments of Community Services, Juvenile Justice, Health, the mental health units—‘switch on their answering machines at 4 p.m. on a Friday and switch them off again at 9 a.m. on a Monday’. The proffered justifications are budget restrictions and cuts in overtime, but it leaves the police, especially ACLOs, as the only personnel—apart from ambulance and hospital casualty staff—able to respond to calls for help.

Service providers tend to see Aborigines in the generic plural rather than as singular or individual. ‘They’, ‘them’, ‘these people’—common phrasings—are treated, not only as being ‘different’ but as a collective, exhibiting group symptoms and problems and, clearly, requiring ‘group solutions’. There are instances of one-on-one relationships, such as in treatment or therapy contexts. A number of such relationships are caring ones, often commented on as such by Aboriginal patients or clients. But there remains a deep-seated and pervasive sense that Aboriginal communities have one set of values, needs, wants, behaviours and responses. The communitas model, is misconceived, inaccurate and inappropriate as a way of proceeding towards strategies in any field, let alone the complex area of suicide.

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