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Việt Báo Văn Học Nghệ Thuật

Editorial: United From The Difference

01/09/200100:00:00(Xem: 3386)
Last week, the media, politicians and ethnic community leaders focused their attentions on the series of gang rapes occuring in South-West Sydney and the use by police of terms such as "young men of Middle Eastern appearance" to describe the suspects. Whilst outraged at those crimes, the majority of ethnic leaders did not agree with such descriptions. Some arguing that such identification is nothing more than an act of over- generalisation which brands the whole community and damages the image and reputation of ethnic communities as a whole.

Sharing the same point of view, Dr. Peter Wong MLC, leader of the Unity Party, organised a forum of ethnic community leaders on Thursday, 23/08/01. The forum passed a number of resolutions, calling on the Premier, Mr. Bob Carr, to publicly acknowledge that ethnic communities do not commit crimes. It also called on the Premier and the police to stop using phrases such as "Middle Eastern appearance", "Asian appearance" or "ethnic gangs" to describe crime suspects or criminal gangs within the ethnic communities.

Mr. Carr, during the interview with Jenny Brockie on SBS's Insight program the same night, maintained that he had never claimed or thought that crimes were committed by the ethnic communities, and nor had he concluded that migrants cause crimes. He asserted that it would be unreasonable and unwise for anyone to think otherwise.

As to the description of the criminals, Mr. Carr believed that, if using terms such as "Middle Eastern appearance" or "Asian appearance" assists the police to "make the speediest arrest and get these criminals to jail, then they're entitled to use that sort of identification".

Mr. Carr also stated, on the same program, that the term "ethnic gangs" stemmed from the fact that criminal gangs recruited their members from certain ethnic communities, so, it is inevitable that the term be used.


We have to acknowledge that, the first 24 hours after a crime is committed is a very crucial period in which the police can search for the perpetrators. To assist police in doing so quickly and successfully, the description of the suspect/s needed to be concise and exact. In Australia, due to the constraints of possible identification by the victim and/or witnesses, coupling with the need to quickly search for the perpetrators, the description of suspects is usually recorded by police, using a number of general terms such as "Middle Eastern appearance", "Asian appearance" or "Caucasian appearance" etc. These terms are short, precise, and have quick visualisation effect to which the victims or witnesses can often relate, and which police often use to narrow down their search for the suspect. The use of these terms, are, therefore, necessary and should not offend or injure anyone's self-esteem at all.

If a white person does not feel offended when police and media describe a suspect as of "Caucasian appearance", then why should a person from the Middle Eastern community or Asian community feel offended when the media describe offenders of being Middle Eastern or Asian appearance" When police and media publish the news that "a red Ford" did not stop after causing a fatal accident at a certain intersection, why doesn't the owner of any other "red Ford" feel offended" Is it true that the real reason for a number of people from Middle Eastern backgrounds or Asian backgrounds feeling offended, stems from their own inferiority complex that being of "Middle Eastern appearance" or "Asian appearance" is somehow equated with being inferior to "Caucasian appearance"" If that is the case, do they inadvertently let their misdirected sense of self-esteem hamper police in their effort to narrow down the search for the suspects"

Of course, once police obtain more detailed information about the suspect/s then their description need to be as detailed and completed. However, we have to acknowledge that most of the crimes are committed when police is not at the scene, and the ability to give detailed description of the perpetrators by victim and/or witnesses is limited. Therefore, in the first 24 hours, when few details are available, police could only rely on the description of victim or witnesses to search for the perpetrators. So, if the victim was attacked by a young man, who appeared to be white, then the victim could rightly told police that the perpetrator is of "Caucasian appearance". Similarly, if the perpetrator seemed to be of Middle Eastern or Asian background, then the victim could describe him as of "Middle Eastern appearance" or "Asian appearance" accordingly. And the police is within their rights to use those terms in their search for the suspect, so is the media to publish the information using those terms.


From time immemorial, anywhere in the world, crimes arisen from a number of causes, amongst which are poverty, the lack of education, the lack of supervision and love from family and the society at large. The harsh environment in which one was forced to grow up and the contact one had with bad elements in the society also contribute to it.

It is a fact that ethnic communities, particularly the newer communities, whose members are refugees, such as the Vietnamese community, are faced with more problems and difficulties than the majority of white Australians. And so, if the crime rates within certain ethnic communities are higher than those in the Anglo-Saxon community, it is important to understand that such difference is caused by extrinsic factors relating to the difficulties and barriers which these communities have to face, in the process of integrating into the mainstream society. It is imperative that such higher rates not be interpreted as a result of the propensity of a certain race to commit crimes.

Consequently, using the term "ethnic gangs" to describe in general the criminal gangs within the ethnic communities, has the generalisation effect which attributes the crimes committed by a few individuals, or gangs, to the whole ethnic community. This generalisation can easily cause misunderstandings and the ethnic communities can easily be offended.

But "ethnic" is not a word which carries a precise socio- ethnological concept. Depending largely on the circumstances, the environment and the era in which it is used, it conveys different significances. Originally, the word "ethnic" relates solely to "ethnicity", to denote a group of people from the same race, sharing the same language, culture and history. But, in the socio-cultural context of Australia today, it is often used as a word to describe minority groups from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB). Some people even go further in saying that "ethnic" is just a sort of euphemism for "wog", an offensive and derisive word to describe post-WWII migrants.

In this manner, "ethnic" itself is a word which carries with it a connotation of being disadvantaged, being unequal, being secondary, if not outright offensive against the communities which are described as "ethnic" in Australian society.

It was with the reasoning that the term "ethnic" could lead to a feeling of inferiority amongst the culturally diverse communities that the Premier had, 4 months ago, announced the word to be "outdated" and decided to rename the Ethnic Affairs Commission, in existence for 21 years in NSW, to Community Relations Commission.

Mr. Carr, in justifying this decision, said that "migrants and their children did not want to be identified with that term [ethnic], they bridled at it". Thus, the key question which beckons answer here is whether Mr. Carr uses the term "ethnic gangs" to describe criminal gangs amongst the culturally diverse communities because he believes that "ethnic" is an outdated term, no longer suitable to describe these communities" If that is the case, he needs to make it clear to the culturally diverse communities, otherwise, the government, Mr. Carr included, should call these gangs by their names, for example, 5T, Green Dragons, White Tigers, Big Circle, Triads, Black Hands etc.. and not "ethnic gangs".

It is also necessary to point out that, in recent years, there were calls for the Bureau of Crime Statistics to collect data on ethnicity of the criminals convicted in NSW. This is a dangerous trend that could lead to preconceptions being formed in the Australian society, for two reasons:

Firstly, as explained before, if the statistics show that the crime rates in a number of culturally diverse communities is higher than others, acknowledgement and cautious analysis should be made regarding the difficulties facing those communities. Otherwise, there would be a misconception that people from those communities are inherently susceptible to committing crimes.

Secondly, during the process of collecting and using these statistics, if no due caution is taken, they can be manipulated and abused for insidious aims. It is in apprehension of the inherent danger of such a process that the Chairman of the Community Relations Commission for a Multicultural NSW, Mr. Stepan Kerkyasharyan, stressed on ABC Radio's The World Today that the collection of data must be "factual and accurate". He also stated: "What we want to make sure is that while that information is being used, that we also exercise some caution not to extrapolate from that the notion that anyone who belongs to that particular ethnicity is a criminal".


Australia is a multicultural, multiracial society. It is an important and positive quality that assists the development of Australia as a nation. However, it also creates, for the community, including the police, some difficulties to overcome and demands to be met.

A mature community is one which recognises the difficulties and the needs of a multicultural, racially diverse society and which knows how to rightfully uphold and protect its reputation and honour if and when necessary. Not only would this be regarded as sign of maturity of that community, it also prevents the unecessary and often dangerously divisive arguments.

Dr. Wong was right when he said "Differences do not divide. It is our attitude to difference that can divide us". In his maiden speech to the NSW parliament he also noted that "The difference and diversity that are inherent to Australia became a target for manipulation and exploitation".

But how can we have an appropriate attitude to differences which would not cause division" And how can we identify the manipulation and the deliberate exploitation of differences to create division in the society"

It is naturally not easy, if each individual, each community can not differentiate between essential and insignificant matters, cannot separate their misdirected sense of self- esteem from the important needs of apprehending criminals to uphold law and order in our society.

It is also very hard, indeed, if our elected representatives, the political leaders at both state and federal levels, only instinctively react in a populist manner without any regard to the hopes and aspirations, the legitimate needs and justifiable demands of the culturally diverse communities, minority in numbers but equal in status to all and sundry, in our society.

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