Does Indigenous Australia Need a #BlackLivesMatter Movement?


The Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. has gained an international following, boosted in part by the highly publicized deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police. Indigenous Australians have been facing widespread disadvantage and Inequality since Colonization. Black Lives Matter aims to raise awareness about institutionalized racism, racial profiling, police brutality and racial inequality, some of the very same problems that Indigenous Australians have faced. Does Australia, then, need a movement of its own?


Like African Americans, Indigenous Australians are overrepresented in most bad statistics and underrepresented in most good statistic—particularly so for Indigenous Australians who are young and male.

Indigenous Australians make up around 2 percent of Australia's population but account for 27 percent of the national prison population, according to 2015 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. That means per capita Indigenous incarceration rates are even higher than for Black people in the U.S.

Over the last 20 years, Indigenous Australians in jail almost doubled and over the last five years there has been an increase in the number of Indigenous deaths in custody, according to a review by the Australian Institute of Criminology. Between 2008 and 2011, the review found that 55 Indigenous Australians died in custody, often due to health problems that were neglected.

The problem of Indigenous deaths in custody has long been known by the public for quite some time. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, fully released in 1991, was a watershed moment in Indigenous affairs detailing 99 deaths in custody.  
Whilst the commission did not specifically blame police for the deaths, many police were seen to fail their duty of care for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous prisoners and sparked public debate into Indigenous issues and what responses politicians should take, with 399 recommendations stemming from the Commission. Sadly most of them have still not been implemented.

Behind bars or not, Indigenous Australians are dying at an earlier age than most of their non-indigenous peers. On average, the life expectancy for an Indigenous Australian is 10.6 percent less compared to the non-indigenous population, according to government figures.

Indigenous Australians also face disadvantage across areas such as employment, education and health. A recent audit by the Medical Journal of Australia revealed that Indigenous people in the Kimberley region of Western Australia had some of the highest suicide rates in the world, with Indigenous children as young as five taking their own lives.

Compared to the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., Indigenous Australians have significantly less social and political capital not just because they make up such a small percentage of the national population, but often because they live in disjointed and disconnected communities outside of the major cities.

There are many organizations working towards the advancement of Indigenous Australians, yet many are not organized with the self-determination and massive grassroots scale of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., with social movements for Indigenous Australians are heavily reliant on the support of non-indigenous Australians.

While the Australian public is aware of the plight of Indigenous people, and may even be aware of some of the startling statistics, issues facing the Indigenous population have been mostly confined to debates over racist language and.political correctness.

Since the 1991 Royal commission, close to 400 Indigenous people have died in custody. This like many other Indigenous problems is invisible to the public.

For Indigenous social movements, white colonialism matters and there is always a need to address Australia’s colonial past. The ever-present colonial structure still remains a significant barrier for the advancement of Indigenous Australians.

Even if the problems of indigenous inequality and discrimination were alleviated, land rights, reconciliation and legal recognition are still extremely important issues that need to be addressed, but can tear at the very foundation of the Australian state.

Conservatives and moderates alike in Australia can be reluctant to say sorry for past injustices, such as the Stolen Generation, which entailed the Australian state forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families and placing them with non-Indigenous families from the 1800s to the 1970s. Saying sorry for past injustices, in the eyes of many Australians, unfairly casts blame on the current generation for the crimes of the past.

Moderate and conservative Australia commonly shuts down the Black armband view of history and colonialism. Similar to critics in the U.S. who say that “all lives matter," those preaching Indigenous reform and advancement are criticised for concerning themselves with a select part of society and for being disruptive to the harmony of the nation, instead of being like “the rest of us"—looking past the crimes of one's ancestors and the effect they still have today.

Unfortunately, saying that "All lives matter" or joining with "the rest of us” completely misses the point of why these movements emerge and the fundamental differences between inequality and equality, between inherent privilege and inherent disadvantage. The exposure that the U.S. movement has received should give hope and, ideally, momentum to similar movements for Indigenous Australia.