Psychological implications of Australia's 1967 "Aboriginal" referendum

Psychologists have long taken an interest in intergroup conflict, with racism being the major instance of that.  And they have laboured mightily to understand it and hence hopefully contribute to its amelioration or eradication.  One look at the world around us today tells us that they have not been successful.

One of the earliest proposals put forward by psychologists was  what was called the "contact hypothesis".  Put crudely, the proposal was that the more whites got to know blacks the more hostility between them would disappear.  The origin of the hypothesis was an influential book by Stouffer et al. called "The American soldier".  The book was based on studies of what had happened in the American armed forces during WWII, when around a million blacks were enlisted plus many more whites.  The authors interviewed many of the men concerned after the war and concluded on rather dubious grounds that being together during the war had improved white attitudes towards blacks.

This sunny conclusion was much seized on by psychologists and many supportive studies were produced.  After a while however, dissent emerged, particularly but not exclusively from Britain.  Many studies showed that contact did NOT improve interracial attitudes and some even found that interracial contact WORSENED racial attitudes.  And so the matter remains to this day:  With no fully agreed resolution.  In some circumstances, contact seems to be beneficial and in others it seems to be detrimental. And often it has no effect at all.

Almost all of the studies on both sides of the question have however had two large defects:  1).  They studied expressed attitudes only, not behaviour;  2).  The "samples" of people that they used were almost always  non-samples, making generalizations from them precarious.  Psychologists base most of their conclusions about humanity on studies of white rats and available groups of Tertiary students, which would be hilarious if it were not so disappointing.

And that is where Australia's 1967 referendum comes in.  It offered a remedy to both those defects.  The hope or idea that one could obtain useful data not from a sample but from an entire national population is usually an impossible dream. Yet the 1967 referendum offered just that.

To recap.: In 1967 Australia held a constitutional referendum in conjunction with a Federal election (voting in Australian elections is compulsory so turnout was around 98%) which was designed to allow the government to make laws specifically about Australia's native black population (the Aborigines). Rather like native Americans ("Indians"), the Aborigines at the time lived to a considerable extent on reservations and were mostly poor, ill-housed, unemployed and prone to serious health problems. I lived just down the road from an Aboriginal settlement during my teens in the '60s so I saw with my own eyes how they lived.

That is not to say that all Aborigines lived poorly.  Some had assimilated and become much like other Australians but at that time they were few.

The main aim of the referendum was to give the Federal government the power to improve their lot.  The constitutional change could in theory have allowed the government to make laws AGAINST the interests of Aborigines but that was not foreseen.  There was much enthusiasm to "do something" to improve the state of Aborigines.  So even at that time 91% of Australians were NOT racist. They wished the Aborigines well.  And the right to vote had already been given to Aborigines a few years earlier.

Aborigines are, however, unevenly distributed throughout Australia. They are largely unseen in the big cities and those Aborigines who are city-dwellers almost invariably live in just one semi-slum suburb. They mostly come into contact with whites as fringe-dwellers around country towns. Additionally, some Australian States have few Aborigines at all (e.g. Tasmania, where they were mostly wiped out in the last century) while others (such as Queensland and Western Australia) have a disproportionately high number of blacks.  The outcome of the referendum was overwhelming (91%) support for the referendum proposal. Australians overall wanted blacks to be helped in any way by the government.

One social scientist, however delved more deeply.  Ian Mitchell noticed that most of the "Yes" vote seemed to have come from the big cities where blacks were largely unknown. He therefore correlated the size of the "No" vote in Australia's various electoral districts with the proportion of the population in those districts that was of Aboriginal origin. No matter how he analyzed the data, he found a correlation of .9 between the number of anti-Aborigine votes and the density of the black population. The more white Australians had been in a position to see, get to know and evaluate blacks, the less they wanted them as equals.

The behavior involved (the voting) was undoubtedly of an extremely significant and important kind as far as discriminatory practices are concerned and the correlation with opportunity for contact was of a magnitude seldom seen anywhere in the behavioral sciences. Compare more than 80% of the variance explained with the 8% explained by Studlar's (1979) multiple regressions in England. When we turn to the strongest body of data we have on discriminatory practices, we find extraordinarily strong evidence that contact with black culture is highly aversive for members of the majority white culture.

There are four reasons why Mitchell's data is particularly strong:

1). He used a full population, not a sample; 2). Behaviour (vote) was studied rather than a (possibly insincere) expression of attitude. 3). The relevant behavior could be emitted privately (in the ballot booth) with little obvious room for peer or social pressure to be exerted. 4). The effect (r = .9) revealed was very strong.

Thus, although the study is the only one of its kind, it is one of a kind largely because of its unusual strengths.

The reasons behind the findings are far from mysterious if one knows a little of the ethnography concerned: Aborigines as encountered by whites seemed to be almost invariably unemployed and living on welfare. They are generally encountered by whites as vagrant street-dwellers being drunk and quarrelsome. They show quite often signs of fearsome disease (e.g. leprosy) and venereal diseases such as syphilis are endemic among them. They show little or no adherence to white ideals of hygiene. Again those things were not true of all but they were the things that whites usually saw at that time.  Many Aborigines today are  clean, sober, hardworking and reasonably healthy but it is the opposite that is most usually seen.

Drunkenness, unemployment, poor hygiene and bad behavior are not, however, part of the original Aboriginal culture. They are the result of loss of culture.  But there are real cultural differences that are just as difficult to bridge: the imperative to share vs the individual ownership, the importance of extended family, the importance of religion, the interconnectedness of all things.

So even if you disregarded modern-day trends and searched the world for the two most dissimilar sets of cultural beliefs you wouldn't go past Australian Aboriginal versus Northern European.  Aborigines do have their own ways but in our society the results are markedly dysfunctional and put them at odds with the society in which they live.

They are also in fact a generally kind and friendly people who feel that they have been robbed of their country but it would only be with a considerable act of will that most whites could bear to interact with many of them at all. Most whites would avoid a drunk, dirty and white hobo so it is precisely because they do NOT discriminate racially that they also avoid and tend to be disgusted by drunk, dirty and quarrelsome black hobos. The most usual state of the Aborigines to this day does have to be seen to be believed. See Cowlishaw (1986) for a fuller description.

The point of all this is that neither whites nor blacks are to blame for the obviously strong dislike that many whites feel towards blacks in general. When large numbers of Aborigines behave "badly" by white standards and large numbers of whites dislike them for it, members of both groups are simply acting as normal carriers of their own culture. The problem lies in the fact that the two cultures are juxtaposed and yet are so different. What is normal in the one is reprehensible in the other. If white culture did not embody a respect for hard work, hygiene and control of alcohol intake, it would not be white culture as it is today. It would be something else. But it is not something else. It is a highly successful culture (in at least material and technological ways) that dominates the world. It will not go away overnight. To tell most Australian whites who know Australian blacks not to dislike Australian blacks is to tell them to forget in an instant their own core values.

So have Mitchell's findings revolutionized thinking in the area?  They are so strong that they should have done but instead they have been sedulously ignored.  I have mentioned them many times in the academic journals but they are not what people want to hear.  Anti-racism is something of a religion in the post-Hitler era and Mitchell's findings do not suit that at all.  Far from adverse racial attitudes being deviant, ignorant, evil, maladjusted or stupid, the findings tell us that such attitudes can in fact be both normal for their community and understandable.

A common psychological claim is that the "other" is disliked out of fear.  Differences in others are feared so defensive mental walls go up.  Is that what Mitchell's findings show?  It's possible but I have yet to hear a white express dislike of Aborigines out of fear.  The reaction instead is invariably disgust.  And Aborigines are simply not fearsome.  They are placid, very polite people and are most certainly not likely to compete your job away from you.  I cannot think of anything about Aborigines that might be feared.  There are good reasons why American whites fear American blacks but none of that applies to Aborigines.

So the outlook for equality between whites and blacks in Australia is very dark indeed.  Aborigines are not going to change, whites are not going to change so nothing will change.

Do the findings suggest anything about the USA?  I think they do.  Australian Aborigines and Africans are different in many ways but what American whites encounter from American blacks also has large aversive elements -- the high rate of violent crime among blacks, for instance.   So despite all the Procrustean efforts of the American Left, equality between blacks and whites in America is almost certainly chimerical.

The statistics -- An ecological fallacy?

Discussion of the assumptions underlying methods of statistical analysis probably makes rather dry reading for most readers but it nonetheless needs to be covered in order to protect one's work from apparently devastating demolition by subsequent, statistically sophisticated writers.

On the present occasion, it must be pointed out that Mitchell's (1968) correlations were "ecological" ones in Robinson's (1950) sense -- i.e. the units for analysis were not indivisible. As Robinson shows, such correlations can easily be beguilingly high, particularly where the units for analysis are few, and such correlations are not estimates of individual correlations. As Menzel (1950) has pointed out, however, ecological correlations do not have to be estimates of individual correlations to be of interest.

Furthermore, it should be noted that Mitchell analyzed his data two ways: once using large (and hence few) units for analysis (the State by State comparison) and secondly using smaller (and hence much more numerous) units for analysis (comparison of electoral districts). Unlike the cases discussed by Robinson, the correlation did not fall markedly on the second occasion. It in fact fell not at all. This suggests that taking the analysis down to the smallest possible unit of analysis (the individual) might not have made a big difference either.

Whether or not that would have been so, however, it does need to be pointed out that ecological correlations tend to tell us more about broad processes than details within such processes. On the present occasion what the correlation tells us precisely is that areas where there are a high proportion of Aborigines are also areas where Aborigines are actively discriminated against. It may tell us nothing about the attitudes that are voiced by whites in such areas and it may tell us nothing about who does the discriminating. It does, however, demonstrate a broad social process. It tells us about societies rather than individuals.


Cowlishaw, G. (1986) Race for exclusion. Australian & New Zealand J. Sociology 22(1), 3-24.

Menzel, H. (1950) Comment on Robinson's "Ecological correlations and the behavior of individuals" American Sociological Review 15, 674.

Mitchell, I.S. (1968) Epilogue to a referendum. Australian J. Social Issues 3(4), 9-12.  

Robinson, W.S. (1950) Ecological correlations and the behavior of individuals. American Sociological Review 15, 351-357.

Stouffer, S.A. et al. (1949) "The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath".  Princeton U.P., Princeton, NJ

Studlar, D.T. (1979) Racial attitudes in Britain: A causal analysis. Ethnicity 6, 107-122.

1 comment:

  1. " is precisely because they do not discriminate racially that they also avoid and tend to be disgusted by..."

    That is a powerful point that can be applied to much of what the left calls discrimination.


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