The Darkness Down Under: Australia Still Reckons With Racism

·9 min read
Quinn Rooney/Getty
Quinn Rooney/Getty

Uluru—a monumental, cathedral-like rock that stands alone in the western deserts of Central Australia—may seem an unlikely place from which to reflect on the scourge of violence against Black Americans that stains the U.S. body-politic today. But understanding the consequences of one event that happened far away in 1934 is a powerful reminder that the struggle to make Black lives matter and counter white supremacist violence transcends national boundaries.

In June 1931, Constable Bill McKinnon arrived in Alice Springs to take up his appointment as a police officer in central Australia. He was barely thirty—lean, brash, and tough—a no-nonsense raconteur with a sharp tongue and unyielding determination.

In 1934, after chasing down six Aboriginal men for the killing of an Aboriginal man that had taken place under tribal law, he cornered one man in a cave and shot and killed him at Uluru, a place that has long been sacred for the Anangu, its traditional owners, and is now spiritually significant for the entire nation.

A Gripping Western Movie Confronting Australian Racism

In 1935, an Australian government Board of Inquiry, which exhumed the man’s body and eventually took his remains back to Adelaide, found that the killing was “ethically unwarranted” but “legally justified.” Remarkably, McKinnon claimed that he had fired his pistol into the cave in “self-defense.” Now, almost 100 years later—after the discovery of new evidence that proves he lied to the Inquiry—the murder of one defenseless Aboriginal man in the heart of Australia highlights the entrenched inequalities in societies rooted in violence and oppression.

There’s a reason that so many Aboriginal people identified with George Floyd. Australia’s First Nations people—twelve times more likely to be incarcerated than white Australians—continue to see themselves as victims of state-sanctioned violence, often involving police.

Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 3.2 percent of Australia’s total population, yet they account for almost 30 percent of the country’s prison population. Their chances of dying in custody are almost six times greater than other Australians. Nationally, their suicide rates are more than double that of other Australians. Crucial social indicators such as life expectancy, health, housing, education, and employment—many of them impervious to the policies of successive governments to “close the gap”—continue to illustrate the alarming inequalities between Indigenous and other Australians. Despite the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Indigenous deaths in Custody (a large number of which are yet to be implemented), more than 500 Aboriginal people have died in custody since the Commission’s report was handed down.

Given the violent history of Australia’s colonization—Aboriginal lands were taken without treaty, consent, or compensation—and the protracted struggle for equality and justice, it’s not surprising that First Nations people view police with deep fear and suspicion. For more than 150 years, it was police and their trackers (both black and white) who were responsible for many of the massacres of Aboriginal people. It was governments and their police who often turned a blind eye to the vigilantes who “cleared” the country of its rightful owners. It was police who took children from their families and facilitated their “re-education” in state and religious institutions. And it was police who represented the brutal imposition of whitefella law over the laws and cultures of First Nations people. Despite numerous investigations and inquiries over the years, no police officer has ever been convicted for the murder of an Aboriginal person.

In 2019, at Yuendumu, an Aboriginal community in central Australia, Aboriginal teenager Kumanjayi Walker died after being shot three times by Police Constable Zachary Rolfe. In a disturbing echo of the events at Uluru in 1934, Rolfe claimed he had acted in self-defense when Walker resisted arrest and attacked him with a pair of scissors. In March this year, an all-white jury found Rolfe not guilty of Walker’s murder, a decision that sparked a wave of grief and anger at Yuendumu and in Aboriginal communities across the country.

Local elders pleaded with police to consult them and respect their law before entering their homes. They also asked them not to bring their guns into the community. If racial profiling and unnecessary deaths were to be avoided, policing, they argued, must be carried out in collaboration with community elders and without the need for firearms.

For many Aboriginal people at Yuendumu, the 1928 Coniston massacre, a wave of indiscriminate killings led by Constable George Murray (one of Bill McKinnon’s colleagues), was still in living memory. Similar stories of profound rupture and horror can be found throughout Australia.

In 2016, esteemed Yolngu elder and respected Indigenous leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu recalled how his father, Mungurrawuy, was present “when the massacres occurred in [East Arnhem Land] in the 1920s and 1930s.” He was also “shot by a man licensed to do so.” “These events and what lies behind them are burned into our minds,” he explained. “They are never forgotten. Such things are remembered. Like the scar that marked the exit of the bullet from my father’s body.” These scars—memories of forced removal, murder, frontier warfare, resistance, and survival—are etched into the bloodlines of Australia’s historical imagination.

Both America and Australia are grappling with the white supremacy at their roots and the challenge of recognizing the fundamental truth at the heart of their history–the racism and violence embedded in the creation of both the American Republic and the Australian Commonwealth. But to understand this shared struggle involves recognizing both points of similarity and difference between the two countries. In the U.S. today, it would be unthinkable for a white policeman charged with the murder of a Black man to be tried by an all-white jury. Yet this is what happened in Australia.

Even the frequently made point that the U.S. can learn from Australia’s gun laws needs to be tempered by the glaring disparities between the two nations. In 1996, after 35 people lost their lives to a lone gunman at Port Arthur in Tasmania, conservative Prime Minister John Howard acted decisively to prohibit automatic and semiautomatic weapons and restrict the ownership of firearms. Howard was able to achieve this swiftly and effectively because in Australia, the possession of firearms is not connected to individual, community, and political identities in the same way as it is in the U.S. Australia has no constitutional right “to bear arms,” nor do large numbers of its citizens believe that gun ownership is necessary to protect their liberty and security.

Some of the strongest parallels between the two countries lie in their treatment of First Nations people. Like Native Americans, Indigenous Australians suffered the dispossession of their lands. They were massacred and “dispersed” at the barrel of a gun. They were denied the wealth wrought from the white establishment’s appropriation of their lands. They were long denied citizenship in their own country, and they struggled against pernicious racial hierarchies and oppressive legislation, adapting creatively nonetheless, and ensuring their cultures’ survival. Although treaties allegedly accorded Native Americans the status of nations and sovereign governments, they were often little more than legitimizing devices for the colonizer’s appropriation of territory, or part of a strategy to ward off rival European powers. Indigenous Australians, however, do not have an established history of treaty-making to fall back on. More than 230 years after the first wave of the British invasion began in 1788, they are still waiting for their sovereignty as First Nations people to be recognized.

Today, both countries cling tenaciously to creation myths of innocence and virtue. Australia has struggled to dispel the myth of peaceful British settlement—the idea that the land was simply “taken up” by settlers without fierce resistance from First Nations people. For many Australians, “war” is something that happened overseas. In 2003, Prime Minister John Howard told a gathering at the Supreme Court of Victoria that Australia had “formed a nation without strife or warfare,” as if the frontier wars were a mere “blemish” in an otherwise heroic narrative of widening democracy and material prosperity.

In 2022, Australia is approaching a reckoning with its history; one that finally begins to address the structural inequalities that are a direct consequence of white supremacy and colonization. In 1901, when the Australian colonies federated under the British Crown, they did so without negotiating with Indigenous Australians, a people they believed to be destined for extinction. With the election of a new Labor government under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, the country will soon hold a national referendum seeking approval for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, “a body enshrined in the Constitution that would enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to provide advice to the Parliament on policies and projects that impact their lives.”

The idea of the “Voice” arose after a long process of consultation between Aboriginal communities throughout the country and in 2017 culminated in a convention of Indigenous Australians held at Uluru. “The Uluru Statement from the Heart”–an eloquent, almost constitutional fusion of the poetic and the pragmatic–called not only for a “First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution” but also for the establishment of a “Makarrata Commission,” which will supervise the making of treaties and truth-telling.

Recently, the South Australian Museum asked the Central Land Council, which represents the Traditional Owners of Central Australia, to consult with relevant Traditional Owners and the families involved in the events of 1934. When that process is completed, one small but significant step in truth-telling will take place when the remains of the Aboriginal man shot by Bill McKinnon will finally be repatriated to Uluru. His name was “Yukun” (aka “Yokununna”) – “Desert Oak No.1” – and his homecoming promises to highlight the urgency and rightness of the referendum to come.

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Adapted from RETURN TO ULURU: The Hidden History of a Murder in Outback Australia by Mark McKenna with permission from Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Mark McKenna.

In 2022, Australia is approaching a reckoning with its history; one that finally begins to address the structural inequalities that are a direct consequence of white supremacy and colonization. In 1901, when the Australian colonies federated under the British Crown, they did so without negotiating with Indigenous Australians, a people they believed to be destined for extinction. With the election of a new Labor government under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, the country will soon hold a national referendum seeking approval for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, “a body enshrined in the Constitution that would enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to provide advice to the Parliament on policies and projects that impact their lives.”

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