top of page

Are we living in 2020 or 1920?

Are we living in 2020 or 1920?

Because it’s honestly difficult to tell the difference between the two in recent months.

Discrimination towards minorities running rampant in places such as the United States and Australia as well as a global pandemic.

Black Lives Matter protestors in America. (Photo by Julian Wan on Unsplash)

The uncanny similarities don’t stop there.

In the 1920s in both the United States and Australia, there were leaders keen to govern their respective nations with racist discrimination. An article written by John Barron for the ABC in 2017, described how under President Warren G. Harding’s watch, “the KKK went from a historical footnote to a potent political force… parading down Pennsylvania avenue in front of a White House which would soon literally open its doors for them”. Warren G. Harding was America’s 29th President and held the position from 1921 until his death in 1923. Barron’s article also talked about how the KKK was allowed to have “a hand in the election of dozens of representatives, senators and governors” while African American people during the 1920s were “lynched in numbers not seen since the 1860s”.

In 1920s Australia, meanwhile?

The government encouraged British migrants to settle in Australia to develop regional areas. Around the same time, there was a game which doubled as a puzzle, released to the public called the White Australia Game. The box of the game described the main objective as to “get the coloured men out and the white men in”, a phrase that could very well be used to accurately describe the White Australia Policy at the time. The year 1920 was in the midst of the Stolen Generation, a chapter of Australian history which created deep mental scars for those it affected, still felt today. Children of First Nations People were taken from their families and ripped away from their communities for “Assimilation”. The ABC’s Healing the trauma of the Stolen Generations podcast, presented as part of Reconciliation Week 2020 and the ABC’s Walking Together Initiatives, is a powerful way to learn more about this shameful period of our history.

Protest signs. (Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash)

Events in America and Australia over the past few decades have shown that racism is still alive and well within these societies.

George Floyd, 46, was murdered at the hands of what can only be described as systemic racism. At the hands of police who knelt on his neck for nine minutes as he repeatedly stated, “I can’t breathe”. Floyd leaves behind a six year old daughter, Gianna, and her mother, Roxie Washington.

I can’t breathe.

A phrase and an event that’s kicked off days of mass-protests and rioting that have stretched beyond the US, with protests being held in London, Berlin and here in Australia, among other cities around the globe. Celebrities, public figures and brands have spoken out against police violence towards minorities, calling for systemic change.

There’s a sense of anger and exhaustion and bitter sadness about these protests. George Floyd joined a seemingly ever-growing list of African Americans killed by police brutality in the last decade alone. Trayvon Martin was only 17 when he was shot in 2012. Ahmaud Arbery was going for a jog, an activity one should presume they’ll come home alive from. Ahmaud wasn’t so lucky. The list of names goes on and on and on. George Floyd isn’t even the only African American person to be killed by police using extensive force to effectively suffocate them. Eric Garner in 2014 used the same phrase, “I can’t breathe”, as New York police officers sat on his head and his life slipped away.

A protest sign with some of the names of black people who have lost their lives to police brutality. (Photo by frankie cordoba on Unsplash)

In a time like this, unfortunately, politicians are proving inadequate to lead effectively, most notably of whom being Donald Trump. Instead, President Trump seems more willing to revert to threats over Twitter, perhaps most alarmingly of which came when he tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. This is a phrase used originally by a Miami Police Chief, Walter E. Headley, in 1967. Mr Headley is quoted in a New York Times article as having said “we haven’t had any serious problems with civil uprising and looting because I’ve let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts… we don’t mind being accused of police brutality. They haven’t seen nothing yet”. It’s obvious the racism from the 1920’s was still ripe in America in 1967, and it still is today.

In Australia, 432 Indigenous Australians have died in custody since 1991. An Aboriginal woman in September of 2019 died after being shot by police in Western Australia. Rebecca Maher died from mixed drug toxicity in 2016. This was after she was arrested for public intoxication. The Acting State Coroner, Therese O’Sullivan, found that if the police had called an ambulance and taken her to a hospital she would still have been alive.

Protestors at an invasion day rally. (Photo by Johan Mouchet on Unsplash)

I haven't even touched upon the continued obsession our political parties have with putting refugees, people who are coming to us for help, in detention centres offshore and onshore, leading to riots, protests, violent confrontation with staff and locals, and countless loss of life.

Similarly to the United States, Australia has its fair share of politicians stoking the flames of racism. Take Pauline Hanson, who’s claims of “we're being over swamped by Asians” in the 1980’s and her gaf of walking into parliament in a burqa in 2017 before discarding it on the floor and saying how it has “no place in Australia”, AND her campaigning last year that Uluru should stay open for climbers because “it’s for all Australians” (that was before she tried to convince a group of Indigenous teenagers that she was Indigenous too because she was “born here”), just touches upon her hateful racist and Islamophobic rhetoric. Or take Peter Dutton, the man who is now our Minister for Home Affairs, who said in early 2018 during an interview with Sydney’s 2GB radio that people in Victoria are “scared to go out to restaurants” due to what he referred to as “African gang violence”, among other examples of blatant racism and fear-mongering. This was the same man who was, for nearly four years, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

But racism isn’t just visible at a political level. Indeed, we the people are the ones who put these politicians in positions of power. And it’s plain to see that racism is still prevalent in both American and Australian societies. Take any of the numerous examples throughout the last few years of white Americans calling the cops on African Americans doing nothing wrong. The only crime in each example seems to be that they’re African American.

And in Australia, the rapid increase in recent months of racist attacks towards people of Asian descent reveals not only an ugly side to our response to the coronavirus crisis, but, we’ve inadvertently revealed that the White Australia Policy-levels of racism are still alive and well.

I am yet to touch upon the coronavirus pandemic, which, much like the influenza pandemic of 1918, has enveloped the world and forced many changes in day-to-day life. But at this point in the article, I find I cannot write about negative things anymore.

So instead of comparing and contrasting Australia’s mostly solid response to the pandemic to America’s disastrous response, I’ll instead ask this one question:

What to do now?

Well, we can voice our disapproval online as many have been doing for a long time. But this is going to need more than a simple angry comment under a post about what Trump says as he stands in front of a Church with a Bible, or a post supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash. Photo by Donovan Valdivia on Unsplash.

Show your support if you can on the streets (while also taking into account safety precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus). Show your support at every election from here on out, so that people like Trump and Hanson and Dutton lose what power they have and can never regain it. Educate yourself on racism if racism is something you’re lucky and privileged enough to have never faced. And show empathy for those that have been unlucky enough to have faced racism and discrimination in their lives.

Society in America or Australia didn’t change in 1920 in the midst of clear, systemic racism. Society is still lacking key freedoms for people of colour. That can be something we do differently from the 1920’s in the 2020’s. Real systemic change can finally be implemented, so that George Floyd, and everyone else who was a member of an ethnic minority mistreated, abused, and killed won’t have died in vain.

Change is needed. That much is obvious. And whenever meaningful change is finally enacted, when people of colour in America and Australia can live in their societies free from racism, it will be a day for everyone to celebrate.


bottom of page