This paper seeks to interrogate the presence of social inequality and discrimination in Australia, focusing especially on the social disadvantages that are faced by the indigenous people as a result of it. It will also use the sociological theories of functionalism and Labelling theory to conceptualize this social inequality. Finally, the paper shall be concluded by studying the current social policy in relation to the discrimination that is faced by indigenous Australians and the contemporary framework which informs this policy.
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Discrimination in Australia
The Aboriginals, who mostly reside in Western Australia, have experienced discrimination from other white Australians since the beginning of the 20th century when Western Australia joined the other colonies in order to form the commonwealth of Australia (Van Den Berg 2002). Other evidences actually show that the aboriginals were abused by the dominant social groups from as far back as 1826.
When Australia was a British colony, the aboriginals of Australia were considered as forming part of the British subjects but when the territory gained its independence, they were excluded from becoming citizens of the new commonwealth. This was set out unequivocally and irrevocably in the constitution under section 127. This section unfairly provided that aboriginal natives were not counted and that they had a legal status that was little more than that of a born idiot (Van Den Berg 2002).
This provision was repealed in 1967 in order to extend the powers of the legislature to legislate on behalf of the aborigines as well. However, from the aforementioned facts, the natural conclusion that can be made is that aboriginals have suffered oppressive discrimination in the hands of the dominant classes for as long as Australia has been an independent state. The constitution, which is the fundamental law of every state often provides for the protection of the individual rights and freedoms of its citizenry.
If a sizable percentage of that citizenry is excluded from recognition by that constitution, it is hardly conjecture to conclude that these peoples’ political, economic and social rights are virtually non-existent.
In a recent incident, a soccer player was booed by the spectators for exercising his cultural rights by releasing a war-cry after scoring a goal. This same player also suffered backlash from media coverage when he spoke out against being called an ‘ape’ (Moore 2015). All his is still happening despite the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 which seeks to protect the Aborigines of Australia from public shame or intimidation for speaking out against abuse or expressing their cultural identity. From this incident, it is evident that racism is still alive in Australia and that the potency of the Racial Discrimination Act is highly questionable.
Furthermore, a survey that was carried out by Amnesty International shows that majority of the white Australians do not regard moving away from an indigenous person in a public place as discrimination. Even worse, there are those that do not recognize verbal insults as a form of discrimination either (Moore 2015). This proves that social discrimination is still a norm and it is made the worse by the fact that the people that perpetuate it may not know that they are doing so.
Discrimination in Australia in the Context of Sociological Theories of Functionalism and Labelling
Functionalism as a sociological theory emphasizes the importance of all components of a society working together in order to achieve a particular goal (Applerouth & Edles 2008). Functionalists are concerned with how the different groups in a society can cooperate for the good of the overall group. It is therefore a theory that recognizes and validates the presence of different systems within a system (Applerouth & Edles 2008). These smaller systems can be taken to stand for sectors of the economy like the religious, economic, political and cultural systems. According the functionalists therefore, the different cultures that make up a society should embrace unity and cooperation if they are to work together for the good of the system.
Conversely, the labeling theory is usually used to identify social responses to crime and deviance. The propounders of this theory posit that by labelling an individual as a criminal, and therefore providing him with sanction, the society actually increases his/her chances of committing another crime (O’Byrne 2013). Recent research shows that the indigenous people of Australia dislike the use of the term ‘Aborigine’, preferring rather to be viewed as a national of Australia (Korff 2016).
In contrast to the functionalism theory, the labeling theory is less about integration and more about seclusion. It explains how people in a society can view others as the ‘other’, thereby reducing any chances of integration or social cohesion. This theory also focuses on the power that titles have over people and this might be the contention that the indigenous people have with the very term that is used so casually to refer to them. Social validation of the word may end up demarcating the boundary lines even more clearly instead of helping the perpetrators of racism to better understand and rectify their deficiencies.
In view of these two theories, it can be asserted that the sociological theory that best describes the discrimination in Australia is the labelling theory. It is evident that the Aboriginal people have been distinguished from the rest of the society from centuries ago and this has played a significant part in cementing their seclusion from the rest of society. The functionalism theory would however be a more desirable theory to aspire to as it recognizes the importance of every sub-group that makes up a society. Through the internalization of this theory in their laws and policies, Australia would be in a better position to integrate the long cloistered aboriginals and absorb them back into the greater Australian society for the good of the nation.
Social Policy in Australia
Policy refers to general statements of intention or values (McClelland 2006). This means that social policy refers to the statements that are made by the government about their intentions with regard to the social lives of its citizens. Social Policy is often the result of applied sociology. Sociology is a branch of science that is dedicated to investigations on how an individual interacts with the society that he is in (Zevallos 2009).
The Center for Independent studies asserts that the aim of the government is to create a socially cohesive civil society (Center for Independent studies, n.d.). The reason for this is explained to be that for there to be a free society, every individual has to respect the rights and liberties of everybody else. This means that every citizen is called upon to limit their own desires and monitor their behaviour towards others. This desire to create a socially cohesive Australia is evidenced by the Anti-Discrimination Act which has led to a noticeable improvement in the lives of minority groups.
This new stance that is taken by the government leans more towards the functionalism theory which espouses social integration of the various groups that make up a particular society. However, even though great strides have been made in this regard, the success of this new social policy and legislation are yet to be seen as discrimination is reportedly still present, albeit subtly within the dominant Australian community.
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In conclusion, the study has shown that discrimination of the indigenous people of Australia has been a norm for over a century. It is because of this that the practice has grown deep roots within the white Australian population and now subsists in even more subtle methods.
Be that as it may, more overt and aggressive forms of racial discrimination still exist and this paints a negative picture of the legislation that is in place which is meant to protect the rights of these indigenous people to not be discriminated against. Even though the constitution was amended almost half a decade ago, there is still little to show for the benefits that it has secured for the aboriginals, especially in the protection of their right to not be discriminated against.
The study has also shown that sociology does have a part to play in the eradication of discrimination. It has shown that by studying the interactions of individuals within a society, it is possible to understand why they act the way they do and consequently, to shape social policies that may change their behaviour for the better. In this regard, it is also clear that the Australian government has made positive steps towards discouraging discrimination and encouraging social cohesion. Although these efforts have not been entirely successful, they are still a positive move towards creating fair and equal opportunities for the indigenous communities.
Finally, it is worth noting that it will take more than just legislation to deal with discrimination, especially that which is more latent and not easily detected. Dialogue is important to identify exactly what both groups of people consider discrimination thereby enabling the government to come up with effective solutions for the same. New methods have to be found to tackle this problem and it is only by innovation and creativity that this it will be rooted out once and for all.
Van Den Berg, R 2002, Nyoongar People of Australia: Perspectives on racism and multiculturalism, Brill, Leiden.
Moore, R 2015, ‘Racism is harmful to human rights and health’, Amnesty International. Web.
Applerouth, S & Edles, LD 2008, Classical and contemporary sociological theory: text and readings, Pine Forge Press, Los Angeles.
O’Byrne, D 2013, Introduction to sociological theory, Routledge, New York, NY.
Korff, J 2016, ‘How to name Aboriginal people?’, Creative Spirits. Web.
McClelland, A 2006, What is social policy? Oxford University Press, London.
Zevallos, Z 2009, ‘What is applied sociology?’, Sociology at Work. Web.
Center for Independent Studies n.d., ‘Social policy’, Ideas for a Better Australia. Web.