Race, Colour and Opportunity

skin tonesSkin colour has been the elephant in the room for some decades but its implications are ignored, unspoken, denied and otherwise not on the table. In polite company the subject is avoided, in politics the subject treated as highly flammable and in race relations everyone pretends it’s a non-event. In the housing industry, in small business, in exclusive clubs and in expensive neighbourhoods, the hidden effects of unspoken colour prejudice are reflected in the composition of suburban populations, private workforces and club memberships.

Why is discussing or writing about the social implications of colour so delicate? The answer is severalfold : first, any suggestion that colour affects individuals’ financial and social decisions is likely to be regarded as racist. Second, in our era of equality and multiculturalism any suggestion that one race or complexion is superior runs counter to the contemporary wisdom of equality amongst men.

The politicians repeat the old mantras. ‘I’m not racist, but…’ or ‘some of my best friends are…’, but somehow the statistics keep telling us that the association between colour and education level or employment never quite reflects this love of our fellow man. If we doubt the presence of a Pigmentocracy in our country, we need look no further than who it is who end up mending our roads, collecting our shopping trolleys, cleaning our motel rooms and doing our contract mowing.

The colour prejudice debate often becomes the racial discrimination debate and it is this connection which has long engaged the international commentators, certainly in the U.S., South America, the West Indies and southern Africa. One of the more fruitful meetings on this subject was the University of California’s Berkeley conference in 2005 titled “Hierarchies of Colour: Historical and Transnational Perspectives on the Significance of Skin Tone”. The ideas and views from that milestone meeting led to Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s 2009 book Shades of Difference: Why Skin Colour Matters, which drew on the work of the Colourism Project at the Centre for Race and Gender at Berkeley. The object of that project was to ‘further the scholarly study of social hierarchy based on skin colour’. The studies referred to in the present essay draw heavily on Glenn’s text.

The Implications of Skin Tone

There is little agreement on whether colour and race are separate attributes. Race is a term used to categorise individuals into distinct ancestral groups, while colour appears as a continuum from darker to lighter. The US uses more clear-cut racial groupings while many South American countries use an undifferentiated continuum of skin tones to describe their mixed populations. Countries with a bi-racial system, in which blacks and whites are recognised, tend to valorise racial purity and emphasise racial difference and value ancestral lineage over actual skin tone. However, countries with multiracial societies such as Brazil and the island nations of the Caribbean downplay race as a determinant of individual identity, encourage racial mixing and tend to highlight differences in skin colour. With an ongoing decline in proportional white populations, there appears to be a trend in the US and in Europe to follow the South American idea of at least a tri-racial system of recognition. Increased racial mixing through global immigration has accelerated this trend.

Glenn (2009) sums up the current situation on colour prejudice as follows:

‘Despite the reigning ideology of colourblindness, that proclaims the irrelevance of race in the contemporary world, colourism, the preference for lighter skin and social hierarchy based on skin tone, has emerged as a pervasive and growing axis of inequality in many societies’. Glenn recognises that while race has “exclusive categories”, the continuum of skin colour cuts across racial classes and has been demonstrated experimentally to influence people’s judgements about others (Herring, 2004).

Shades of Difference makes no mention of the Australian situation, which is both interesting and surprising, but Glenn recognises that globally, race and colour judgments made in the context of Afro-influence, include physical features beyond skin colour, i.e. nose shape, lips and hair texture. The effect of Western history has been to demean darkness and idealise lightness. From this has come government decisions not only to classify but also to segregate racial groups. Thus from 1850 to 1910 the US Bureau of Census used categories of blacks, whites, and mulattoes. Legalised segregation used the ‘hypodescent rule’ in those states unwilling to recognise this third group, resulting in different states using anywhere from one eighth to one thirty-second of African ancestry to legally define who was ‘black’. These laws were abolished in the 1960’s when the ignoring of the other thirty one thirty-seconds was seen to defy logic (Telles 2009).

Despite the removal of legal classification of colour groups, many Americans apparently still believe that essential and natural divisions of Homo sapiens do exist and should be recognised.

Australians may be interested to learn that in 1991 the Brazilian Census added the class ‘Indigenous’ to its white/brown/black hierarchy, although less than 1% of Brazilians were classified as Indigenous. The plot thickens with the addition of the sub-class ‘Caboclos’ (Civilised Indians of mostly Indigenous ancestry), although the white/non-white divide remains the most widely accepted distinction in Brazil.

The term ‘Moreno’ (the real Brazilian?) is very widely used in Brazil but hasn’t ever been included in their census classes. Nevertheless, the discrimination and exclusion which dark ‘African Brazilians’ continue to feel, remains a reality of genetic analysis as a return to the dreaded Eugenics of the post-Darwin era in the late 1800’s, but today’s DNA results give the lie to many precious beliefs on whiteness. One such study by the University of Minas Gerais revealed that in a sample of 200 Brazilian whites, the mitochondrial DNA of the matrilineage of self-identified white males, exhibited 33% Amerindian (Indigenous) and 28% African (slave) DNA, i.e. a dominant (61%) non-white genetic make-up. This is explained by the miscegenation between the original Portuguese invaders, the local Indians and the African slaves.

Such heredity may have only been of passing interest, both in Brazil and Australia, but the implications of skin tone resulting from mixed unions translates into very serious discrimination as reflected in one US example (Telles 2009). In that case, the 1980 study of skin colour and income using five classes of darkening skin colour, found that individuals with ‘very light’ brown tone, averaged 80% of white income, ‘light brown’ 75%, ‘medium brown’ 66%, ‘dark brown’ 56% and ‘very black’ 53% of average white income. (In Brazil’s three classes of white/brown/black, the latter two earned 44% and 40% of the former’s income).

The present author is not aware of comparable Australian studies, but anecdotal evidence suggests similar trends to the above results. Torres-Saillant’s (1998) Brazilian study ‘The Tribulations of Blackness’ shows that 33% of the difference in earnings cannot be explained by differences in education, experience or personal origins and can only be explained by labour market discrimination against dark colour.

In the Australian context, the separation of colour discrimination from other employment attributes is not possible according to Helen and Mark Hughes (2013) who maintain that ‘welfare income’ is so high that it masks genuine employment income. In Hughes’ studies of the 2011 census results, the median Indigenous household income was $51,000 p.a., but rose to $80,000 in remote homelands ‘where unemployment was virtually 100%’. The Hughes’ state that ‘the intractability of Indigenous problems avoids acknowledging that dire conditions on these lands are caused by discriminatory policies’ which increase serious problems with health, housing and violence. ‘Effective policy requires honest data’ say the Hughes’ in accusing government of a cover-up on the actual conditions in remote Australia by using different Census forms.

Pertinent to the Australian search for racial identity is the conscious attempt by writers such as Gilberto Freyre (Freyre) to recognise a national ‘Brazilianness’ or ‘Morena’ identity, which reflects the fusion of Blacks, Indians and Europeans into a non-hierarchical mixed race. In contemporary Australia there is an increasing dichotomy of views on the merits of integration or separation. The opposing forces of destigmatising darkness versus black pride, have a long way to go before Australian National pride is both clearly defined and accepted.

The significance of racial classification differs between countries, and can vary over time, from negative to positive as each country progresses with its equity policies. In the U.S., the Black Rights movement, Reverend King’s speech and President Obama’s election, all contributed to black self-esteem and confidence. Recognition of black disadvantage in the U.S. led to special programs preferring blacks, particularly in education. In the process, being black changed to a positive, at least officially. In practice, unemployment remained high and discrimination continued as an unspoken covert element of American society.

The attraction of a free university education even made some whites claim black status. The same occurred in Brazil where for the first time in their history, blackness became an advantage. Perhaps predictably, it wasn’t long before the National University of Brazilia came under fire for accepting free students who weren’t ‘authentically black’. Policies were confounded by the number of light-skinned applicants who could prove their black blood by DNA tests. So white skin’s social privilege had black blood’s educational advantage added. Apparently the ambiguity of skin colour still complicates Brazil’s racial classification system.

The Australian system is different from both the Brazilian and U.S. systems of racial identity. The current Aboriginal identity is dependent on three criteria: (1) some Aboriginal heritage, (2) acceptance by an Aboriginal community and (3) active participation in that community’s affairs — no mention of skin colour, physical features or language proficiency.

A Historic Perspective on Colourism

The origins of discrimination against people of colour can largely be traced to Europe during the Age of Exploration. More particularly, in the English-speaking world, the racial question is writ large in the history of the British Empire. This is not to say that Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, French and German colonisers were more generously inclined toward vanquished natives; on the contrary, the conquistadors, the Dutch East India Company, Henry the Navigator’s mariners, Louis XIV’s seafarers and Kaiser Wilhelm’s scientists all took with them the self-assured superiority of being white, civilised and Christian — surely a world-beating combination!

During the era of slavery, blackness was defined as barbaric, savage, ugly and evil, whereas whiteness was civilised, virtuous and beautiful. Miscegenation between the two groups over time, produced a continuum of physical types which resulted in a preference for more European-looking servants who were regarded not only as more attractive but as intellectually superior to their darker cousins. In time, the lighter group benefited from greater educational opportunities and came to match their masters in capability, behaviour and dress. Over the decades, the emerging mixed group (mulattoes, coloureds, yellafellas) increasingly distanced themselves from their darker kin and, in some cases, even made the latter unwelcome in their new social organisations. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, by avoiding marriage to darker blacks and associating more closely with those of white and lighter skin, the mixed-race emergents gained substantial advantage for their ever-lighter offspring. However, as the concept of ‘black is beautiful’ took hold, particularly in the US, but also in South America, Southern Africa and the Carribbean, a reversed ‘lightening’ occurred, so that by 1950, a noticeable darkening of the transitioning group was evident.

In 1980 the National Survey of Black Americans (NSBA), which categorised black skin colour into five shades (from very dark brown to very light brown), was the only comprehensive study of the relation between skin tone and socio-economic status available to the public. This survey showed how complexion acted as a form of social capital which can be converted to individual human capital.

The mechanism by which such personal advancement takes place is not clear, but several explanations have been offered. Of these, the positive responses of both teachers and employers to lighter individuals seem to present the strongest evidence. There is further classroom evidence that teachers have higher expectations for lighter students and demonstrate this by challenging them more and marking them higher (Davis 1940).

Herring (2004) reports several US studies on job discrimination which indicate that up to eleven times more racial discrimination is shown against darker-skinned Afro-Americans than experienced by their lighter-skinned compatriots.

This situation was followed by the preference reversal referred to earlier, in which the post-Civil Rights era brought a significant decline in this skin-tone disadvantage for those born after 1945 (end WWII) but nil effect for the 1953+ cohort, as shown by Gullickson (2005). The same research showed an unexpected greater upward mobility of darker individuals than for lighter individuals for the 1982-1992 decade. Despite these historic advances, American researchers seem generally agreed that more evidence is required before we conclude that complexion is no longer a factor in individual progress. They note that the effect of skin tone is more important for the Afro-American women than for men This may be because very dark women have been at the bottom of the social ladder.

So how might this American history of colourism compare to the Australian experience? Australian scholars have generally steered clear of skin tone as an achievement determinant, probably for reasons of racial sensitivity, white guilt about colonial wrongs, miscegenation and black reaction to colour discrimination.

Apart from isolated studies which showed how job applicants in Australia were discriminated against when photo-colour and name were the only C.V. variables, there are serious problems with both the documentation of actual numbers of Aboriginals, the definition of ‘income’ and the non-stratification of remote education statistics. So, between oversensitivity on colour and the lack of reliable data, colourism has apparently become a non-event for Australian scholars.

While there’s no real information from serious race research which could significantly benefit Aborigines, there is a rising tide of black pride, an increasing demand for justice, an expanding black employment market, a greater participation in professional education, an almost overwhelming level of sports achievement and the start of a serious debate on self-governance.

Scholars ask, ‘What is it that makes Australia so different as a fruitful field for race studies and research on colourism?’ In addition to the guilt issues referred to above, the relative stages of historic development of blacks and whites at the time of contact, may have differed from most other countries. To this extent, and recognising the absence of slavery (as globally understood), Australia has a unique type of colonial trauma. This uniqueness stems largely from the unusual distance in civil development between the First People and the white arrivals — a distance so great that in the Darwinian 1800’s, the latter group considered the former to be less evolved, even sub-human. In truth, the early governors of the colony sought to implement protection policies precisely because they perceived a lack of competitiveness, in the Western sense. The complex and sophisticated family genealogy and code of practice of the First People eluded the pale Second People and, as a result, some Aboriginals were dealt with under the NSW Wildlife Act well into the 1900s.

Today, things are different, but what has been termed ‘smiling discrimination’ still persists in Australia — in schools, in employment and in the housing market. The extent to which such covert discrimination is related to skin tone is a matter of conjecture, but general observation suggests ‘the lighter the better’ in social contracts. The unfairness of the assumptions underlying such preferences is not to be denied and the effects of stereotyping remain personally damaging. Meanwhile Aboriginals in the urban setting continue to mary outside their racial group to a very large extent, some 80% in fact.

In its structure, Australian racism is much more simple than, for instance, several South American countries or the Caribbean. However, Australia’s black/white divide occurs within a multicultural migrant society of about ninety nationalities, all of which bring their racial and religious flavours to the cultural soup that is modern Australia. The influence of skin tone in this mass migration has changed since the White Australia policy of the 1940’s, although the general hue of the rainbow nation is markedly lighter than the global rainbow.

Over time, the disadvantage of darker skin tones has diminished and behavioural norms have overridden colour and race as an attribute of social acceptability. In the process, humanism has largely replaced religion and being Australian has required re-definition. This is a far cry not only from the concept of White Australia but also from fear of the Yellow Peril which never fully went away.

The association between Aboriginality and remote dysfunction may unfairly stigmatise the First People. In one sense, black Aboriginals find many of the multicultural communities ranged against them only on behavioural issues. While not exactly isolated, the First People often find themselves shunned by the mainstream. This appears to be largely a social rather than a case of colour/racial discrimination. There appears to be an out-dated stereotype, even where urbane city dwellers act much the same as the other suburbanites.

Some Historic Colour Policies

Discrimination on the basis of colour and physical features goes back to at least 1500 BC, when the Vedic texts relate how the Aryan speakers of northern India conquered the dark Dasa. The Dasa were considered then to be barbaric practioners of black magic, had black skin and flat noses, and were deemed comparable to demons. Scholars identified the ‘flat-nosed, thick-lipped proto Australoids’ as the progenitors of the dark Dravidians who contrasted visually with the lighter Aryans (Basham 1961). Later, skin tone was used to place darker races on a lower rung of achievement when British scholars claimed that races such as ‘Negros, Red Indians and Australians’ (Laing 1862) could not achieve literary accomplishment.

Many early Australian governors and military commanders had experience in India where, in Victorian times Aryanism, as the subcontinental light-skinned people were called, was popularised. The fairer Indians were more easily integrated into British colonial society, but only in a way that was relative to darker races. As one Bengali journalist wrote in 1874, ‘We were niggers at one time. We are now brethren’, when referring to the new Hindu status (Baber 2004). Later, the whiteness debate moved from the Aryan ideal to the Caucasian challenger, which many scholars insisted was not sufficient to be classed as white. (Das Gupta 2006).

Such historic coloursim may seem irrelevant to contemporary Australia but it explains much of the bias of colonial society against darker races. A major upset to earlier colour bias is described by Gary Taylor in his book, Columbus to Hip Hop (2005). In this account, Columbus found whites where he didn’t expect to find them, i.e. in Trinidad. In the 1630’s a Spanish missionary in the Bahamas reported similarly, i.e. ‘people as white and blonde as Belgians’. In the Indian sub-continent the darker Hindus take pride not in whiteness but in being Aryan, Caucasian or Asiatic, as distinct from African. Their Hindu pride was in their high culture Brahmanism. This led colonial authorities to designate racial classes on several criteria other than skin colour. The term ‘white’ is now treated with official caution in several former British colonies, essentially this is because ‘white’ still seems to denote invasion and oppression and is today considered indicative of outdated values. Importantly, ‘white’ is also closely associated with Indigenous culture loss.

In the case of Mexico, earlier European racism has led to a new national pride in their mixed race or Mestizaje. Over the centuries, many governments have considered and sometimes applied, policies in which deliberate inter-marriage of blacks and whites had been predicted to ‘improve’ the national gene pool. Space doesn’t allow an analysis of the success of such ‘betterment’ programs but the generalised results are at best very variable (Thompson 2006).

While not part of any directed policy on mixed marriages, the heritability of skin colour has been particularly elusive. In the same family, the offspring are known to have unpredictable colour; even facial features vary greatly. This ‘surprise’ inheritance has become of great significance in sperm and egg donation and has led to a preference for adoption of infants in some countries. Allison Page, a lighter-skinned Aboriginal of Australian TV fame, tells the emotive story of how she and her two sisters were known at their NSW North Coast school as Honey, Peanut Brittle and Vegemite. Unsurprisingly the darker sister experienced considerably more discrimination and exclusion than her lighter siblings.

While Australia still uses racial identification in its census, countries like Mexico have deleted such identifiers for nearly a century (Loveman 2001). Increasing problems related to race-based social benefits, beset contemporary Australian policy-makers.

In sub-continental India, Jyotsna Vaid (2009) writes under the heading ‘Fair Enough’, that different castes (varna) actually mean ‘colour’ in the original Sanskrit. So long before the Aryan/Caucasian invaders of India’s North, skin colour was the central attribute in distinguishing the early untouchables. The drinking of saffron by pregnant women aimed to increase the chances of having a fair child. After birth the regular use of turmeric paste further enhanced light skin tone.

Southern Africa

While skin lightening may be viewed as a trivial aspect of the global cosmetics trade, its unspoken message that ‘white is right’ has proven to have serious implications for individuals worldwide. The ideology of white supremacy which European colonists brought to southern Africa, developed into a special case in which dark skin was associated not only with primitiveness but with unrestrained sexuality. The early Dutch government reported in negative terms on the habit of the Cape natives (Koi Koi) to smear their bodies and hair with foul-smelling animal fat and their habit of copulating in public. Mostert’s (1992) graphic descriptions of the habits of the Hottentots do much to explain the revulsion and distancing of the colonists from the locals in the late 1600’s.

While the history books emphasise the evils of Apartheid which reflect the uncompromising determination of white Afrikaners not to be swamped by blacks, the history of the Afrikaners demands a more nuanced assessment of their ideology.

Few narratives tell of the Afrikaners struggle for cultural survival better than James A. Michener’s ‘The Covenant’. Of Dutch extraction and French Hugenot influence, the emerging Afrikaner people of the Eastern Cape Province had trekked far from Cape Town, mixed with the local Koi Koi and established their own Afrikaans language. They sought to sign land treaties with native chiefs, one of whom murdered the Voortrekker leader. Only the effective use of wagon laagers and firearms prevented total elimination of the Afrikaner by native warriors. Half a century later, Imperial Britain conquered the Afrikaners in the Boer War, brought on by British determination to own the gold and diamond reserves in the Boer Republics. Fast forward another half century and the Afrikaners decided that only separate development (apartheid) could save their unique African white tribe.

It was in this context that South African colourism became central to political success of the whites. Under different conditions and a more equitable sharing of land resources this scheme could actually have worked, as it did with Pakistan’s separation from India.

When the apartheid regime used racial classification as a total control on individuals’ future, the greatest (failed) experiment in social engineering the modern world had known became the focus of international anti-racism

The apartheid system recognised four official designations of race: European, Asiatic, Mixed and Other Coloured, and Native. In popular parlance this translated to individuals’ ‘life opportunities’ since it had serious effects on income and social position. This led to a formal process by which an entire government agency did nothing but consider applications for changed racial designation. As an example, in 1986 the South African Institute for Race Relations published the following statistics for successful race-change applications: African to Coloured 387, Coloured to White 314, Coloured to Indian 81, White to Coloured 8, White to African 0, African to White 0 (Leach 1986). While the personal reasons behind such requests would be complex, the Immorality Act and the prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act no doubt added to the reasons for many applications.

Parallel to this official classification and its influence on well-being was the older trend among tribal women to regard lighter skin, thinner lips and an aquiline nose as the apex of beauty. This was an earlier appreciation of lightness and finer features, which was not an attempt to ‘pass for white’, but rather a social preference for lightness in which skin, lips, nose and even hair, were the attributes of discernment. Skin lightening creams had been targeted at white women in South Africa since the 1920’s. [When the present author was elected to run the staff association’s ‘native shop’ at his agricultural college in 1956, he soon realised that Ponds Vanishing Cream was by far the most popular commodity sold]

South Africa was simultaneously influenced by the three differential pressures of (1) Tribal preferences by government, (2) Apartheid classification and (3) the US Civil Rights movement. Between them, these conflicting pressures gave somewhat different messages: Lighter is beautiful, Lighter is socio-economically beneficial, and Black gives Power.

So in the 1950’s and 1960’s in the Cape Region of South Africa, many Native Africans changed their names, favoured lighter-toned marriages and spoke Afrikaans, all in an attempt to beat the classification system. Because the system actually specified which jobs would only be filled by designated racial classifications, one’s designation became crucial. This was beyond covert discrimination by employers; it was legal Job Reservation under the Act of that name.

Under these restriction it was unsurprising that the emerging black leader Steve Biko famously called on all Africans, Coloureds and Indians ‘to reject the racial categories and oppression of apartheid, and together unite as blacks’ (Thomas 2009). This gave emphasis to the abandoning of skin lightening among black women, and buoyed by the vibrant emergence of Black Consciousness, this signalled the end of imposed self-loathing by many blacks.

Meanwhile the younger South African whites, the Australians and the Californians were working hard at their ‘bronzed surfer’ image. In this way suntanned skin became a symbol of good health, provided it was accompanied by fairer hair, refined facial features and a sufficiently sophisticated lifestyle. In this way, the pigmentocracy became modernised and differentiated, and by the mid-1970’s there were signs that it was giving way to at least a partial meritocracy.

In South Africa, racial lines had become so hardened that those in the moderate middle ground found there was no place for them in the public square. Today, history tells us that despite the superhuman reconciliation efforts of Nelson Mandela and Bishop TuTu, a combination of reverse colour discrimination and extraordinary levels of government corruption, leaves contemporary South Africa as an economic backwater far removed from a serious meritocracy.

South Africa remains the global example of the ‘Evil Empire’ not because it sought to apply separate development but because of the way its white minority (1:8) persisted with an inhuman model of implementation which reflected the whites’ determination not to be dominated by blacks. With a democratic needs-based policy on the distribution of resources, separatism could have succeeded; instead, identity politics and white selfishness won the day and delivered the country to the blacks.

The Legal Minefield of Colourism

Today’s court cases about discrimination on the basis of skin colour, have their roots in both British and American law, the latter giving all persons ‘the same rights as white citizens’ (1886, post-civil war). In the US this law was updated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits discrimination on the basis of colour, race, religion or national origin. Early law-makers seem to have regarded colour and race as separate attributes, but the court record showed that there was often confusion as to whether a colour case was really a race case.

The cause and intent of discrimination are often very difficult for courts to establish and US expert opinion is that ‘legal race theories do not provide sufficient guidelines for courts to apply’ (Banks 2000). Legal problems arise when unintended racial discrimination is nonetheless harmful to those offended. Whether an unconscious racism exists as an unintended colour-phobia is problematic for the courts. Even where such phobia appears as an inherent ‘natural’ response, its perpetrator is held to have known that their actions or words were damaging to the complainant. So, what one commentator regards as normal acceptable phraseology can easily be seen by a sensitive member of a minority as a pernicious evil.

Litigants in the US apparently often use colour and race interchangeably, but always inferring that their ‘looks’ were the reason for the alleged discrimination they had suffered. In such circumstances the selection of a white or black jury invariably leads to claims of bias, even if worded only as a disguised insinuation in the media.

In the case of US Latino plaintiffs, in the absence of a clear-cut black/white discrimination narrative, colour dynamics seems to cause serious legal confusion. As Hernandez (1998) puts it: ‘With the [present] colour-blind rhetorical disdain for the language of race and racism, developing a nuanced concept of colour discrimination more fully, may prove to be the key to retaining the efficacy of Civil Rights laws’.

In the Australian context, changes to the Racial Discrimination act 1975 are imminent as this paper is being prepared. Whatever amendments are approved, several elements of this law will remain of great significance to improving the balance between racial protection and free speech.

Perhaps the most incisive of the many assessments of Section 18C and 18D of this Act, is that of David Rolf of Sydney University’s Law School. Unlike other commentators, Rolf maintains that ‘it was likely that Andrew Bolt would have been held liable under the Defamation Act as well, because the Discrimination Act draws so heavily on the intent and interpretation of the Defamation Act’. The most pressing need, in Rolf’s legal opinion, is for changes to the latter Act. The Bolt case is an atypical distraction — unlike most cases brought under Sections 18C and D. In short, free speech cannot be addressed by simply amending these sections. Both the above Acts rely on interpretations of offence, insult, fair comment, good faith and factually accurate reporting. In the Defamation Act, the defendant needs to honestly hold the opinion expressed. In other words, fabricated offence will not stand.

The exercise of free speech in Australia is much more dependent on the Defamation Act than the Racial Discrimination Act, in Rolf’s view — a view which de-emphasises the publicity given to the Bolt case.


Considering the bulk of evidence available globally, it seems that while colour-based racism is less widespread than in earlier years, historic prejudices continue to influence societies where employers discriminate against some ethnic applicants. The priority of needs-based policy over race-based policy still requires corrective action in many countries. In the Australian context, racial discrimination, while still evident, has markedly reduced, due largely to a major influx of migrants and specific policies to support Indigenous advancement. Colour bias has yet to be reduced to an acceptable level.


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Further Reading

Armour, J. (1997). Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The hidden costs of being Black in America. New York, United States, New York University Press.

Blair, I. et al. (2004). “The Influence of Afrocentric Facial Features in Criminal Sentencing.” Psychological Science 15.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Lanham, Maryland, Rowman and Littlefield.

Bonilla-Silva, E. & Biocci, G. (2001). “Anything But Racism: How Sociologists limit the Significance of Racism.” Race and Society 4.

Charles, C. (2003). “The Dynamics of Racial Residential Segregation.” Annual Review of Sociology 19.

Christopher, A J. (2002). “‘To define the indefinable’: population classification and the census in South Africa.” Area 34(4): 401-408.

Darity, W. & Mason, P. (1998). “Evidence on Discrimination in Employment.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 12.

Glenn, E N. (2002). Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labour [Prohibitive Marriage Laws since 1691-2000]. Harvard University Press.

Harris, C. (1993). “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review 10(6).

Hernandez, T K. (1998). “Multiracial Discourse: Racial Classifications in an Era of Color-Blind Jurisdictions.” Maryland Law Review 57.

Herring, C. (2004). Skin Deep: How Race and Complexion Matter in the Color-Blind Era. Urbana, Illinois, United States, University of Illinois Press.

Hill, M. (2002). “Race of the Interviewer and Perception of Skin Color.” American Sociological Review 67.

Hunter, M. (2002). “If You’re Light, You’re Alright.” Gender and Society 16.

Jones, T. (2000). “Shades of Brown: The Law of Skin Color.” Duke Law Journal 49.

Klonoff, E. L., H (2000). “Is Skin Colour a Marker for Racial Discrimination?” Journal of Behavioural Medicine 23.

Knight, A. (1990). Racism, Revolution and Indigenismo In The Idea of Race in the Americas, 1870-1940. Austin, Texas, U.S., University of Texas Press.

Lawrence, C. (1987). “The Id, the Ego and Equal Protection: Reckoning with Unconscious Racism.” Stanford Law Review 39(2): 317-388.

Lopez, I. (1994). “The Social Construction of Race: Some Observations on Illusion, Fabrication and Choice.” Harvard Civil Rights Law Review 29.

Marx, A. (1998). Making Race and Nation : A Comparison of the United States, South Africa and Brazil. United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press.

Palmer, C. (1976). Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570-1650. United States, Harvard University Press.

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[1] This paper maintains the original English spelling of colour.

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