Prejudice is the evaluation or prejudgment of people based on their membership of a group (Myers et al., 1999). Prejudice and discrimination can affect individuals’ opportunities, their overall well-being, and their sense of agency (Abrams, 2010). This has been a problem for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) peoples and continues to be a problem. ATSI people, compared to non-ATSI Australians, show significant disparities in many areas, such as health, employment and education.
Racism has been widely identified as a contributor to disparities in health (Kairuz et al., 2020) and a wide-ranging body of research from global authors has found negative correlations between racism and health. While there is less literature from Australia, the findings we do have follow global trends. Therefore, it is vital to understand prejudice and discrimination from a social-psychological perspective which identifies the factors that can increase or reduce prejudice between ATSI people and non-ATSI people. This essay aims to understand the theories behind the development of prejudice and discrimination between ATSI people and non-ATSI people, and suggest ways to reduce them.
The social psychology theories of prejudice
Several theories have been postulated as leading to prejudice. The first one that will be examined is Realistic Conflict Theory. This theory suggests that when groups are seeking the same limited resources, members of each group will be prejudiced toward members of other groups (LeVine & Campbell, 1972; Sherif, 1958). These groups may be in rivalry for resources such as employment, power, or social status. It is uncertain whether this theory would apply to prejudice against ATSI people although there may be some resentment among non-ATSI people due to a belief that they receive an unfair amount of government funding with the current Australian government budget for ATSI people being $4.2 billion per year (McNicol, 2022).
Next to be discussed is Social Identity Theory. This theory posits that we base our identity on the group that we are part of and evaluate our own group higher than other groups (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Some studies found that infants as young as 3-6 months can distinguish individuals by age, gender and race (Quinn et al., 2002, Katz & Kofkin, 1997). This indicates that categorisation is a deep-seated human characteristic. We can however belong to more than one group and there is evidence that self-categorisation in multiple groups reduces prejudice (Jones& Jetten, 2011). For example, I am Asian, female and a social worker. I am a member of a group that excludes males, another group that includes males but excludes non-Asians and another group that includes males and non-Asians but excludes non-social workers. I therefore have goals in common with many types of people however if I was a member of only one group, I would perceive myself to have little in common with people from other groups. Furthermore, we can move between groups, not only in simple ways such as a job change but also in more far-reaching ways. For example, a school leaver may be from a low socio-economic background but, after attending University and getting a medical degree, becomes a doctor and then becomes a member of a high socio-economic group.
It has been hypothesised that the need of primitive humans to live in groups to survive gave rise to group identification. There are many benefits to group identification. Membership brings benefits such as emotional support and maintaining self-esteem. It can however, have harmful effects, for instance, shared values have led to long lasting conflicts such as the troubles in Northern Ireland (Abrams, 2010). In social psychology, categorisation helps people simplify their perception of the complexity of the world (Collins & Quillian, 1969). This is a necessary and natural cognitive process in human beings and has been considered an antecedent to prejudice (Nnawulezi et al., 2016).
The third one is Social Learning Theory which is also known as Social Cognitive Theory, suggests that prejudice is learned through the process of observational learning (Bandura, 1977). For example, as stated by Maluso (2017), parents’ and children’s attitudes regarding prejudice toward members of other groups are almost always aligned. Observation and reinforcement of behaviours greatly influence children’s attitudes. There is also substantial evidence of peer influence affecting attitudes (Hjerm et al., 2018). Attitudes can also be affected more indirectly, such as the media. For example, Hyler et al. (1991) point out that media representations of mentally ill people are often negative and this portrayal influences society’s perception of the mentally ill. The news has a strong influence as it is consumed by a large proportion of the population, and there are negative stories about ATSI people in the news for example, the crime rampage currently happening in Alice Springs, and this may in turn influence non-ATSI people’s perceptions.
Duckitt (1994) states that an analysis of a multitude of theories relating to prejudice revealed four processes that are common to all of these theories; a) Human beings inherently possess the potential for prejudice. b) Social and intergroup dynamics create a circumstance that turns potential into actual prejudice. c) Methods of communication explain how patterns of prejudice are spread to other members. d) Individual differences determine members’ susceptibility to prejudice.
What are real life issues ATSI people have
According to Krieger et al., a substantial number of studies have reported negative associations between racism and health outcomes (1993). While there is limited literature in Australia, disparities in health between ATSI and non-ATSI people have been recognised (Kairuz et al., 2020). For example, ATSI people have a life expectancy approximately 8 years (8.6 years for men and 7.8 years for women), lower than non-ATSI people (Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet, 2019). Moreover, ATSI people were 1.5 times more likely to have a disability or chronic health condition than non-ATSI Australians (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014). In 2008, the Australian Government recognised this disparity and Kairuz et al. (2020) points out that despite efforts to bridge this gap, health inequities continue to exist. The Australian Medical Association in 2018 emphasised the importance of addressing racism to improve health inequities in ATSI people. Although, it should be noted that while the smoking rate of non-ATSI people was 15.1% in 2017-2018, the smoking rate for ATSI people was 43.4% in 2019. Furthermore, smoking causes approximately one in four deaths in ATSI people (AIHW, 2022).
ATSI people also experience disparities in employment (Falls & Anderson, 2022). The following statistics illustrate this, in 2012-2013, the ATSI unemployment rate (52.2 per cent) was twice more than non-ATSI people (24.4 per cent) aged between 15 and 64 years (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014); this unemployment rate includes students, retired, and all other non-participants. Also, research (Booth et al., 2012) found that job applicants with names identified as ATSI were significantly less likely than Anglo-Saxon names to get a call back for an interview. Historically, ATSI people were being paid half of the minimum wage until 1970, and in 2004, the NSW and Queensland Governments acknowledged and apologised (Banks, 2008). In Australia, discrimination based on race was made illegal in 1975, however, ATSI people still face continued discrimination. According to de Plevitz (2000), there was limited public recognition of systemic discrimination of ATSI people in the labour market, and furthermore, current anti-discrimination laws seem to have little effect on institutionalised racism in the labour market (Altman et al., 2008).
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (2012) expressed deep concern about the severe discrimination that ATSI children are subject to regarding access to essential services. There are many studies (Black et al., 2017; McCain et al., 2007) that found that early childhood education is linked positively with health, development, employment and well-being outcomes. In 2016, ATSI children were 50% less likely to attend a childcare service than non-ATSI children (Sydenham, 2019). In 2017, the overall school attendance rate for ATSI students nationally was approximately 10 per cent lower than non-ATSI children (83.2 per cent, compared with 93 per cent) (Australian Government, 2018). According to Biddle and Bath (2013), families who have experienced discrimination are less likely to attend preschool. Furthermore, ATSI people still fear institutional involvement (SNAICC, 2012).
Recommendations to increase intergroup harmony between ATSI and non-ATSI people
Disparities in health, employment and education between ATSI and non-ATSI people has been recognised for a long time. The Australian Government has tried to close the gap by providing frameworks to improve access to facilities and reduce discrimination, however, this has had little impact. Perhaps the Government needs to take a more direct approach in closing this gap. The leading causes of death among ATSI people in 2020, were heart disease, diabetes, lower respiratory diseases and lung cancer (ABS, 2021). The “life be in it” campaign of the 1970s was very successful in getting Australians to pursue a healthier lifestyle (National Museum Australia, 2022). Perhaps a similar campaign targeted at ATSI people could have a similar outcome. It is likely that a reduction of the gap in life expectancy and less illness would result in a better quality of life and that that would translate into increased harmony between ATSI and non-ATSI people.
The majority of research on reducing prejudice found that intergroup contact can help reduce prejudice (Turner, 2020; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2000; Abrams, 2010). Allport (1954) suggests that intergroup contact is associated with improving a prejudiced attitude when both groups have equal status, common goals, institutional support and cooperation. However, the relatability of his research to real life has been questioned, and, except in situations where variables are closely controlled, it is doubtful whether optimal conditions for contact can be met. Indeed, some research shows that contact can make prejudice worse (Abrams, 2010; Turner, 2020).
Changing the way that people self-categorise can lead to less prejudice. Turner (2020) said that when members of different groups are perceived as belonging to the same all-encompassing group, meaning that they share a group identity, it leads to reduced prejudice. In addition, being a member of more than one group has been linked with improved emotional well-being (Binning et al., 2009), psychological resilience (Jones & Jetten, 2011), and coping (Haslam et al., 2008). Rokeach (1977) said this about human values (a) the same values are common to all people, (b) culture, society, and personality precede values. Therefore, by emphasising these common values, people are more likely to self-categorise into a more all-encompassing group.
There are many negative associations with ATSI people, such as alcoholism, violence, and crime (James, 2010). Indeed, research by The Australian Institute of Criminology found that ATSI people commit violent crimes at a rate twenty times that of non-ATSI people (James, 2010). It is possible that these facts overshadow any positive contributions made by ATSI people. Indeed, Pagotto and Voci (2013) found that the influence of positive contact between groups can be defused by negative media, including news. It is my belief that shows like “Australian Story” on the ABC, should be used to air stories about ATSI people who have been able to make a positive contribution to Australia. This could be for instance, ATSI people who have joined the army or attended University and earned a Bachelor degree. These stories should not be about ATSI people who have achieved extraordinary success for instance, in the arts, it should be about ATSI people who have achieved things that are within the reach of ordinary ATSI people. This is consistent with the narrative approach, which was shown by Braddock and Dillard’s study (2016) to be effective in bringing about a reduction of prejudice. Indeed, Murrar and Brauer (2019) say, “prejudice researchers and diversity practitioners interested in creating positive social change should turn their attention to the media and harness the power of narratives to forge a well-crafted story of social equality into reality” (P. 168).
ATSI people face discrimination and disparities in health, life-span, education, and employment. There are several theories which seek to explain prejudice such as Realistic Conflict Theory, Social Identity Theory, Social Learning Theory/Social Cognitive Theory. Duckitt (1994) said the following four processes are common to all these theories; human beings possess the potential for prejudice, prejudice is inherent and social and intergroup pressures turn attitudes into actions, prejudice spreads and some are more susceptible to influence than others. Although governments increasingly attempt to promote equality, there needs to be more direct actions on closing the gap between ATSI people and non-ATSI people. Social contact and shared group identity could be discussed to reduce prejudice. Lastly, using the media to change attitudes by using a positive narrative was discussed.
Author: Catalina Nam, B Social Work (Hons), M Couns, AMHSW.
Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, Catalina Nam has extensive experience in counselling including but not limited to: NDIS; veterans; migrants; disability; domestic violence; and seniors; and she has undertaken advanced training in Grief and Loss. Having moved to Australia from Korea in 2003, she has first hand understanding of the challenges of being a migrant.
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