It’s time to recognise Aborigines, vote on gun control, and acknowledge racism

It has been one of those weeks when the news ranged from the depressing to the positively uplifting.
On the depressing side, the release of the Australian Crime Commission report on drugs and organised crime in sport last Thursday, called “the blackest day in Australian sport” by the former head of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA), Richard Ings, has prompted a week of heated debate but little light. (I wrote about the report in my blog last week: ) The sporting codes are criticising the ACC for a lack of details and names, and the commission says they are restricted by legal issues. But all sports are tarnished until the ACC delivers the goods. A meeting last night between the states’ sports ministers and their federal counterpart, Kate Lundy, the ACC, ASADA, and player associations hasn’t calmed down the clubs, players or the average punter about the lack of specifics. My advice: charge somebody, quickly!
President Obama gave his State of the Union address, described by The Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, as “stunningly lame and drearily orthodox,” which makes me wonder if he was watching the same speech I was. I thought it was passionate, powerful and pertinent to the President’s agenda on immigration reform, gun control and the economy. Okay, he is going to have difficulty paying for all the programs he has promised, but it’s better to light a few candles than curse the darkness, with apologies to the Christophers Movement. And boy, did the President light a candle for gun control. He begged Congress to vote on his proposals, for the sake of the victims. Listen to how he introduced one of the victims, and tell me if you think it was “stunningly lame.”
“One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.
“Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.”
President Obama said Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona member of Congress shot in the head by a gunman who killed six people at a rally in Tucson, “deserves a vote.” She, too, was in the audience. He then went on to talk about the other victims, to continuing applause:
“The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence, they deserve a simple vote … Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country. In fact, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all of the challenges I’ve outlined tonight. But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can — to secure this nation, expand opportunity, uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.”
Lame, no sir. This was a president taking aim at the powerful gun lobby and pleading with the members of Congress to vote. How could they say no? Easy, says the NRA.
On the positively uplifting front, our own Parliament unanimously passed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act. It was a glorious moment of unity among all the parties. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, were wearing the beautiful “R” button supporting Recognition. They both praised Kevin Rudd for his apology speech five years ago as an important step toward Reconciliation and Recognition. (Although there was a slightly depressing update with Rudd revealing to The Australian today he had not been invited to a Reconciliation Australia dinner attended by the PM and Indigenous Affair Minister Jenny Macklin. Labor Politics! )
The Act is also an important step in enshrining recognition, with a two-year sunset clause forcing parliament to introduce a referendum to change the Constitution to recognise Aborigines, which, indigenous leaders hope, will achieve real reform. It was good to hear Tony Abbott say: “We need to atone for the omissions and for the hardness of heart of our forebears to enable us all to embrace the future as a united people.”


But as in the United States, we still have a long way to go before we can say we are a united people. The Jeremy Fernandez story in a case in point.
The ABC news presenter was sitting in the back of a government bus in Sydney with his 2-year-old daughter when a nearby female bus passenger with primary school-aged children started racially abusing him. He tweeted how she called him “a black c**t” and told him to go back to his country.
It went on for 15 minutes and he called it his “own Rosa Parks” moment after the driver told him to move to the front of the bus. Rosa Parks was a black woman in Montgomery, Alabama who refused to give up her seat in a segregated bus to a white man in 1955 and became a hero of the civil rights movement.
Staying put, Fernandez tried to shield his daughter from the racial abuse, saying: “It’s a sad thing when a coloured man in 2013 has to show his kid how to hold their nerve in the face of racial taunts.” He also tweeted: “Anyone who says racism is dying is well and truly mistaken.”
It reminded me of what I call the “Fourth Beer Truth Serum” in Australian pubs. When Pauline Hanson was at the height of her anti-immigration campaign, I used to go to the pub after work and chat to the regulars. During the first beer, they would say: “Yeah, Pauline Hanson is terrible, isn’t she? A real racist.” By the time we got to the fourth, it was: “But she has a lot of good things to say, though, doesn’t she?”
And that’s where I use my own example. Having grown up in West Philadelphia, near a playground where one side was populated with white residents and the other with blacks, I was initiated into racism by my parents and peers and neighbours. They were good Catholics, who went to mass on Sunday and confession on Saturday, but never confessed that they used racial epithets. They didn’t think it was a sin.
They feared African Americans moving into our neighbourhood would lower real estate values, and they were right. But the only reason is that when one black family moved into your street, nearly all the whites moved out into the suburbs. When my dear Mother was alive, I called and asked how things were going in the neighbourhood. She said: “Oh Tommy, a black family has moved into the street.” I said: “That’s great news.” She said: “You don’t have to live here.” She was right, of course, but that didn’t make it right!
I didn’t realise how racist I was until I got to Villanova University and met African Americans like Prentiss Yancey, who lived across the street from the Rev Martin Luther King, Jnr, in Atlanta, and is now a prominent lawyer in that southern city. And my education was complete when I taught for three years in Harlem, and met a fellow teacher who grew up on the other side of that playground in West Philly. I joked that we probably fought against each other in race riots in our youth. He looked at me, without smiling, and said: “Tom, you’re probably right.” I also learned a lot in Harlem and read books like Race Awareness in Young Children by Mary Ellen Goodman about how racial attitudes begin among four-year olds. It’s a brilliant study of 103 children and how they perceive the world around them. One stuck with me: “They are learning to like the things that other people like, and to dislike the things that other people dislike.” Sadly, the children of the female bus passenger abusing Jeremy Fernandez have already learned one of the things their mother dislikes.
So when the blokes in the pub across from my mother’s house called me a “N—– lover” for teaching in Harlem, I pleaded guilty. It also kept me out of Vietnam, but a few of my friends who returned from the war came to watch me teach, and said: “At least they gave us a gun.” It was not the children’s fault, but the society that segregated them in schools lacking the funds and in neighbourhoods packed with crime and drugs. Still, amazing teachers like Ed Plummer and Doris Brunson, long-time veterans of I.S. 88, gave their students a quality education and helped them go to prestigious prep schools and, in some cases, Ivy League universities. I once told Tony Abbott, who goes to Cape York every year to help teach Aboriginal children, that the real heroes in places like Far North Queensland and Harlem are those teachers who stay, not those who go there on sabbatical, like us. I have written about those teachers and the Opposition Leader in a previous blog:
With apologies to Milton, they also serve who only stand and teach.
The day the constitution formally recognises Aborigines, as a result of a referendum, is a day we should all celebrate.
And perhaps it will herald a day when Jeremy Fernandez and his daughter can get on a bus in Sydney and be treated like African Americans in Montgomery –with respect and dignity.

4 thoughts on “It’s time to recognise Aborigines, vote on gun control, and acknowledge racism

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