Debate continues on the underlying causes of the Cronulla riot, and
whether Australia is fundamentally a racist country. Many have pointed
out that the question is largely meaningless, since “racism” can mean
almost anything you want. But few have been as measured in their
response as Andrew Norton in yesterday’s Australian.

Norton considers the evidence on how our attitudes to race and culture
have changed over time, and the apparent paradox of underlying
prejudice coexisting with tolerant attitudes, and public support for
immigration and for multiculturalism that is at historically high

A small majority of Australians admit to prejudice, but is
this a fuse of racial tension waiting to be lit? In daily life, the
answer is no.

For all but a handful of very prejudiced people, prejudice is a weak
sentiment complicated by other views (cultural diversity is good) and,
importantly, norms and laws about the proper treatment of other people,
irrespective of private opinion. This makes Australian racism

Norton may be too eager, however, to acquit Australians of politically
incorrect views. Like other commentators on the right, he wants to talk
about culture rather than race; after the war, he says, “concern
shifted from racial purity to national unity,” and when a 2001 poll
showed the existence of racial prejudice, he comments that “race here
is a proxy for culture.”

But is it? Might it not be the other way around, that people are really
concerned about race but rationalise it in terms of culture? Without
further evidence, we probably should reserve judgement on which of the
two is more important.

Norton argues that racism is compatible with tolerance; expanding on the point at Catallaxy
blog, he argues that this is fundamental to liberalism – we can and
must tolerate those we disapprove of. “Racism is a negative view of
people of other ethnic backgrounds, but tolerance is a code of
behaviour when faced with people we don’t like.”

While this is true, there is certainly a tension between the two. The
liberal hopes that tolerance over time will develop into more than just
a non-aggression pact, and become genuine acceptance of racial
diversity. We may not yet have reached that in Australia, but it can be
hoped that we are on the way.