Can someone who abuses ‘Lebs’ not be a racist?

Yesterday, Marcus Kapitza lost an appeal against a jail sentence for his part in the Cronulla riots. What seemed to have landed him in most trouble was this:

Kapitza threw punches at two Middle Eastern youths on the day of the riot, and was also at the Cronulla railway station when two other youths travelling on a train were set upon by a mob. Kapitza was hitting his hands against the windows of the train, shouting “f*** off, f*** off Lebs, f*** the Lebs”, which encouraged those carrying out the attack inside the train, Judge Peter Berman said.

The SMH version of the story also rather coyly tells us that on the day he was wearing a singlet with a “slogan that insulted Mohammed”, but in less Muslim Melbourne The Age tells us what it actually said, that according to Kapitza “Mohammed was a camel raping faggot”.

Curiously, one thing that concerns Kapitza about the media coverage of his words and actions is that:

“It has portrayed me as a racist, which I am not,” he told the court.

Perhaps, as several commenters think about Gary Anderton, Kapitza is just saying this in an attempt to salvage what little is left of the reputation of a person the judge said was “otherwise a man of good character”. But it depends what you mean by “racist”. There is a tendency to think of racists as people with a generalised dislike of the “Other”, as our friends in the Arts faculty would say. But the survey evidence suggests that specific likes and dislikes without any overarching theory of ethnic differences are more common – prejudices rather than “racism”, with its implications of a doctrine like liberalism, socialism, or even “anti-racism”. Kapitza, like many of the other Cronulla rioters, seems to have been angry at a “few things some members of the Lebanese community have said over the years”. The Australian way of life was under attack, he told the court, and he chose the slogan as an “eye for an eye”.

Recently I read Ian Buruma’s new book, Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. As well as discussing van Gogh’s murder at the hands of an a Dutch-Moroccan Islamist, he writes about Pim Fortuyn, also murdered for his political beliefs (though not by an Islamist). Fortuyn was a populist opponent of Muslim immigration, but became angry when he was accused of being racist. His opposition to Islam began when Muslim youths broke the windows and threatened the clientele of a gay bar he frequented – even though he was a sociology professor, like Kapitza he was motivated by specific circumstances, not general theories. But he, like Kapitza, drew the conclusion that a way of life – the Dutch way of tolerance – was under threat.

I’m glad Kapitza has gone to jail; that we settle our disputes peacefully is fundamental to the “Australian way of life”. But I think it is plausible that he is not a racist in any general sense; that his views are inferences from the behavior of specific groups of people, rather than judging specific groups based on general theories. That Kapitza does not like ‘Lebs’ doesn’t tell us anything useful about what he thinks of any other ethnic group.

19 thoughts on “Can someone who abuses ‘Lebs’ not be a racist?

  1. Isn’t it racism to extrapolate particular traits to the general population? It seems there are two ways to react to Muslim men threatening people in a gay bar. One is to focus on the behaviour (let’s stop people threatening gays), while the other is to focus on the group (let’s keep Muslims out). It seems to me that the latter is a form of racism – perhaps more so if the nasty trait is only present in a small proportion of the group.

    The analogy I have in mind is with what economists call statistical discrimination (apology for yet another Wikipedia ref).

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  2. But isn’t the fact that Kapitza thinks in terms of a ‘Lebanese Community’, and attributes specific things some Lebanese have said to Lebanese in general, racist, no matter what his general views of people of other races are?

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  3. What I am trying to do here (and there is a bit of thinking aloud) is revive some conceptual distinctions that have been lost in the way the word ‘racism’ is used. There seems to me to be an important distinction between people like Kapitza or Fortuyn, who are reacting to specific real instances and would stop if the behaviour they don’t like stopped, and say beliefs that certain groups of people are inherently inferior, which was the way Australian Aborgines were often viewed.

    I was going to write more about the insult to Mohammed, but decided it was too big for this post – Islam is not a race, and I think therefore is in an entirely different category.

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  4. I’m not sure how you can always tell whether someone is making an inference from observed circumstances or acting from a general a priori prejudice.

    Not only that, but the two can work together. The old “woman-driver” problem from statistics 101: you experience a bad driver, you see it is a woman, you say “bloody woman drivers!”. You don’t say “bloody male drivers” when you (probably equally as often) experience bad driving by a man. Your prejudice informs your observation/inference.

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  5. I’m of Greek extraction, and I think because of this “muslim threat”, us Greek-Australians are viewed in a much more positive light.

    Even John Howard says we’re a model for successful immigrant community integration (just google it for a reference) when I can imagine we were for him once upon a time the scary other.

    My point though is that I don’t think Greek-Australians have changed their behaviour in any significant way, but we’ve come to be accepted by arch-conservatives like Howard because we’re not as bad as other types and I suppose because he’s grown accustomed to Greek habits and may even eat a souvlaki with real garlic sauce every now and again.

    Now I don’t think Howard is a racist in the sense of there being a genetic reason for supposing one group of people is superior to another, but I definitely do think he feels socially awkward amongst people who don’t behave in a way that he has grown accustomed to.

    I agree that this is different to the genetic meaning of racism, but there is certainly something not quite right about someone like Howard’s general unease about having to deal with people with whom he is not accustomed to. Whilst I agree that it is not racism per se, I certainly believe it speaks of a general cultural immaturity and a fear of the “other” so to speak.

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  6. Antonios,

    That “something not quite right” about our smallest prime minister is the general unease we all feel when a politician of his standing stoops to using *other peoples racism* for his own political gain, whatever his personal feelings are. It can be viewed as both cowardly and craven.

    I think there’s a general case for giving incidents like the Cronulla riots a bias against racism and towards general thuggery. Jail is a perfectly appropriate solution for Kapitzas (I agree we don’t know whether he is a racist or not), but I don’t believe people should be given a free pass to indulge in real racism when they see the thuggery and criminal activity.

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  7. When you refer to the belief in a group being “inherently inferior”, are you referring solely to biological inferiority or also to cultural inferiority?

    I agree that there is no clear evidence that Kapitza believes in biological inferiority (though it would be possible that a white supremacist would believe that the majority of Muslims are from inferior races). But it is quite possible that he believes that they have an inherent cultural inferiority.

    If so, while it is correct to argue that the term “racism” is inaccurate, it may be that it is used just because there is not a well-known equivalent for belief in cultural inferiority.

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  8. Antonios – I think Australian Greeks have changed; the elderly aside virtually all speak fluent English, a major force for integration, and have a very high level of knowledge of Australian culture and customs and so understood what to do and how to fit in. That wasn’t true at the start.

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  9. In Fortuyn’s case, possibly ripping off or abusing Morrocan rent boys (he was investigated for allegedly having sex with Morrocan minors) may have provoked the attack on the gay bar.

    There really is no comparison between coastal Holland (Rotterdam in particular) and Australia. Holland is liberal in the classic sense of the word (unlike Australia), wealthy, densely populated, with one of the biggest ports in the world feeding the largest drug market in the world (the EU).

    The Orange Order is still a potent force for freedom against the Catholic Empire which once controlled Holland. This is probably the unwritten reason Fortuyn was murdered. His bigotted faith. His replacement was an Afropean christian running on an anti immigration ticket in Rotterdam. The difference between migrant and local is judged in terms of months and years rather than centuries or millenia in core areas of Europe particulalry its largest port. Holland, the country where environmental lawyers carry semi automatics not the loggers.

    1. Is it prejudice to hate racists if they are also professors of public sector wage negotiation?

    2. Has catallaxy become the most irrelevant and contradictory political group blog in Australia after http://www.gov.au ?
    Should it be downsized even further?
    (A MacNair Anderson poll)

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  10. The fact that ‘racism’ and ‘racist’ are pejorative terms suggests to me that they must involve something more than ethnic stereotyping. As an Australian of Indian origin with an Aussie partner, a Greek brother-in-law, a Chinese Malaysian friend who defines himself as a ‘Chinaman’ and Italian and Greek friends who frequently refer to themselves and their parents as ‘wogs’ and their behaviours as ‘woggish’, I would go insane if I couldn’t make ethnicity-based comments amongst family and friends. That is real life. But I’m not sure racism as currently understood requires something as extreme as an intellectual belief in racial inferiority. To put it in a wishy-washy way, in a practical sense, I see racism as a derogatory and unsympathethic form of ethnic stereotyping. This would allow people to make jokes at their own ethnic group’s expense without being a ‘racist’, but would catch people like Kapitza.

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  11. My brother and I had vastly different experiences in dealing with our ethnicity growing up, even though we grew up in the same outer-suburban hell hole, went to the same crappy high school only 11 years apart, both spoke English and behaved in much the same way at the same age!

    What had happened in the intervening 11 years however was things like Acropolis Now, where the customs of the Greek-Australians were popularised and not deemed to be a threat, and the influx of Asian immigrants became the new whipping boys.

    And let’s not forget that the Lebanese kids in Cronulla could all speak English too, and their parents are usually more educated than the Greeks that came from their tiny villages.

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  12. The point about the Lebanese kids at Cronulla was not whether they could speak English or not but that there were a few pricks among them that made everyone else of their ethnicity look bad. As Andrew Leigh alluded to, this is about irrational statistical discrimination, not supremacism.

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  13. The guy’s shirt specifically mentions Mohammed. It is obvious that the Cronulla rioters were not organising against Lebanese in general but specifically Lebanese muslims.

    One of the interesting things about this case is that all the media tut-tutting was interested in was the racism of Anglo-Saxon Australians, and this guy certainly doesn’t fit that bill.

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  14. I know I’ve said this quite a few times already, but I’ll keep driving the point home: are there any intellectually honest non-Muslims out there who have any objections to that guy’s T-shirt? On precisely what grounds? (I’ll make this easier for you – if you don’t accept that Mohammad was a prophet, what do you believe inspired him to claim as much?)

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  15. I don’t know why it is even important to work out whether Kapitza is racist or not. The fact that his crime — or the crimes of others — may have been motivated by a hatred of a race or religion doesn’t, in my mind anyway, make his crimes more or less heinous that if they were motivated by a dislike of black hair, brown eyes or the assumed voting patterns of the victim.

    However, it would seem to me, that the question isn’t one of whether there is a real justification for one’s antagonism towards a particular group of people but what extrapolations one makes from that real justification. For example, let us say a Lebanese man steals my car. As a result, I say I don’t like Lebanese car thieves. That isn’t racist however if I then, based on that statistically insignificant sample, decide that I don’t like all Lebanese men because they are all car thieves then I’ve graduated to a form of racism.

    In any case, Islam isn’t a race, it’s a religion so I am not sure charges of racism can apply. However, a person is no less stupid to make broad generalisations about a particular religious group than he is for making similarly statistically invalid generalisations about a particular racial group. For example, a Muslim steals his car so he concludes that all Muslims are car thieves or they have a proclivity to steal cars.

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  16. Amir: Define statistically invalid. The statistics on crime among different ethnicities in Australia are quite easy to get hold of.

    If one ethnic group has 5% of its members in prison and another has 20%, is it “statistically invalid” to say that a member of the second ethnic group is more likely to be a criminal?

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  17. Where does that leave penal colonies like Australia Mr Yobbo?

    Irish made up 10% of the population of Manchester at the time of transportation and only 5% of the convicts transported from Manchester.
    So the arse end of the anglosphere as opposed to the anglo-irishsphere is probably the most criminal ethnic group in the world.
    So listen to Quiggin , Begorah!

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