Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 1 No. 1, May 1983

Blacks, whites and power

Paul Wilson

A Review Article on Lorna Lippman, Generations of Resistance: The Aboriginal Struggle for Justice (Cheshire, Melbourne, 1981, $12.95)


"The relationship between black and white in Australia is and always has been a power relationship." So concludes Lorna Lippman in her book on the history of white conquest of Australia. I certainly don't doubt her; having spent most of my working life in Queensland (and a year residing in Western Australia during 1982) her contention appears to me self-evident. Year after year I have listened to the inflammatory rhetoric of Queensland political leaders on aboriginal mat ters and observed their blatant use of political power in suppressing the land rights movement. Recent examples abound: the just retired Queensland Minister for Aboriginal Affairs described aboriginal activist Shorty O'Neil as "a white fella". According to Tomkins, Shorty O'Neil "earned an income as a professional Aborigine". The World Council of Churches report damning government policies on reserves was cynically stereotyped by political leaders as "the work of com munists". Even the Department of Aboriginal and Islander Advancement official report refers to opponents of of land rights as "trouble-makers" and "agitators".

Secrecy and slander are the twin weapons used by the Queensland Government in their continued denigration of Aboriginal culture. But such weapons are not confined to Queensland. Lippman's compelling account of the past and pre sent power relationships between black and white in this country draws from every state and most areas of social and political life. Most of what she says has, of course, been said before, but the strength of Lippman's work is that she says it in a way that some among the unconverted might take notice of. Her style is multi-faceted: it combines anger, rational analysis, persuasion and, at times, the evocation of guilt—but the guilt is not left free-floating, as remedies are suggested for past injustices and present inadequacies.

One of the real strengths of her book is that Lippman shows how the glare of publicity over Aboriginal matters in recent years has gained the support of some sections of the white community while antagonizing others. The so-called "white backlash" evident in the Northern Territory has led political leaders to accuse Aborigines of being racist when they express resentment of injustice. It has led as well to accusations of blacks being mercenary when they demand compensation for lands appropriated or minerals extracted from their soil; and they have also been accused by no less an authority than the Premier of Queensland, Mr. Bjelke-Petersen, of practising apartheid when they, as Lippman puts it, "strive to keep intruders at bay."

These criticisms are simply not valid. Lippman documents how the Aboriginal struggle is everyone's struggle. "It is," she suggests, "against the fierce pursuit of economic growth which reduces people to mere instruments of production;

116

resists monstrous economic forces and impersonal bureaucracies and seeks instead a more individually responsible lifestyle, with greater conservation and increased locai autonomy."

In pointing out how their struggle is really our struggle Lippman does us all a great seNice. For too long writers on Aboriginal matters have documented the excesses of white colonization without at the same time showing that these ex cesses also effect whites—not so strongly perhaps, but still significantly. The strength of her book lies too in her ability to explain how white Australians have been fooled into adopting comfortable but destructive stereotypes concerning Aborigines.

Nowhere is this point better illustrated than in her highly original chapter on children's literature. In a biting analysis of recent publications available in school resource centres Lippman lists example after example of racist literature. "The ~Australian Natives never advanced beyond the Stone Age;" "The picture (of Aborigines) shows you that they are rather ugly, have dark skins and wear very few clothes;" "They had no knowledge of working the land or raising livestock and lived from day to day on what nature produced—today a few remote tribes live in much the same way, while even the ~civilized~ Aborigine is still a nomad at heart."

This, as Lippman suggests, is Eurocentrism run riot: a western industrialized society is taken as the norm and a value judgement shows Aboriginal culture not just as different but as inferior. There is not the attempt to emphasize the . positive features of Aboriginal life, with material presented in schools tending to show them as problems to be solved and deficits to be remedied. And, relating back to Lippman's original point about the imbalance of power relationship bet ween the races, no indication is given in the books concerning the economic, political and social inequalities that separate whites from blacks.

Stereotyping of Aborigines, whether in children's literature, political rhetoric or general social life has profound practical implications for both Whites and Blacks. In my recent book Black Death White Hands I looked at some of the con sequences that arose as a result of the Queensland government's paternalistic assimilationist policies towards black Australians. The reserve system in that state arose partly as a result of the stereotyping accompanying the formation of that policy and partly as a result of the economic convenience afforded to Europeans by government-controlled Aboriginal areas. However, when people i~ are herded into reserve areas, denied rights to their land, housed among strangers, and made answerable to government installed guardians, the social costs are considerable.

The evidence I collected revealed a hitherto unbelievable pattern of human destruction—manslaughter, murder, alcoholism, self-mutilation and death from disease in areas of direct government responsibility. Thus the homicide rate among Aborigines on Queensland reserves is ten times the State or National average. When serious assault is considered, a conservative estimate is a rate . ~10 to 15 times the State or National figure. Between 500 and 1000 Aborigines per 100,000 are in jail, one of the highest imprisonment rates in the world. The

117

Queensland Aboriginal reserve death rate from infectious diseases is 89 times that of the State as a whole.

When these figures were released few in Queensland, or elsewhere, took much notice. Why? Lippman's book suggests the reason. "We all", she writes, i'even if indirectly and unwittingly, have benefitted"—(from present injustices). As a people white Australians control and are free to exploit the continent, and for this reason we have been loath to give even a small section of this country back to the original owners.

Essentially, Lippman argues, it is a conflict of economic interests that prevents us from putting into practice the right of Aborigines to their traditional lands. Land rights may not solve all, or even most, of the problems that blacks now face, but at least it is a start. Such a beginning may, as well, help us to balance out the power imbalance that so dominates relationships between blacks and whites.

It is unlikely that whites will voluntarily give up their economic interests. Lipp man makes it abundantly clear that Europeans only give concessions to native Australians as a result of pressure. And she demonstrates, possibly for the first time, that this pressure has historically come mainly from blacks. From 1788, when the white intruder first came on these shores, Aboriginal people led the resistance movement, at first actively on the battle field and, in later years on the political front. To be sure there have been many sympathetic whites, but the thrust of the resistance has always gathered momentum from the blacks themselves. Nowhere was this more apparent than during the Commonwealth games when black political protest became well organized, sophisticated and, judging from news reports both here and overseas, effective.

Lorna Lippman has written a highly readable and important book. She presents her arguments cogently, uses photographs and tables effectively and, in the process provides a wealth of detail on present day white/black relationships. It deserves to be widely read.

Dr Paul. R. Wilson is a writer and sociologist at the University of Queensland. His latest book is Black Death, White Hands (Allen and Unwin, 1982).


New: 20 May, 1997 | Now: 22 April, 2015