"Black search for meaning"

An enduring answer may be the example of Islam in black America, a movement that did more to bring coherence and pride to Afro-Americans than all the millions spent in health, education and welfare.

I think Aboriginal redemption may be found somewhere between such a fundamentalist religion and a radical political movement.

"The Age" 5/1/96. The Aboriginal suicide rate has become among the world's highest in little more than 25 years. Colin Tatz explains why.

WHEN an Aboriginal lad died in police custody in the cotton-picking town of Wee Waa, New South Wales, the episode stirred one of my students to write on what, rather than who, killed Eddie Murray.

Specific suspicions aside, the death seemed singular. Christine Stafford discovered that before Eddie's death in 1981, there were - across the country - fewer than 20 recorded Aboriginal suicides in police or prison care.

Aboriginal suicide barely rated a mention in the largely anthropological literature. Murray's death was therefore extraordinary.. sinister we thought. By the time Lloyd Boney died at Brewarrina in 1987, the 16th death that year, Bob Hawke was prepared to listen to the Committee to Defend Black Rights.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, appointed in 1987, then inquired into 99 deaths between January 1980 and April 1991, concluding with 339 recommendations in five volumes.

Unexpectedly, perhaps, foul play didn't emerge; 37 per cent were from natural causes, 34 per cent were self-inflicted, 9 per cent were associated with substances, only 5 per cent resulted from custodians' actions, and the rest were occasioned by fights or accidents.

Aborigines die in custody at a rate relative to their proportion of the gaol population. But they are grossly over-represented in custody and "too many Aboriginal people are in custody too often". That, says the commission, is the crux.

The report will rank in Australian history as significant for our race relations and racial attitudes. Wide-ranging and free of political censorship, the commission dealt with the people who died, the Aboriginal disproportion in custody, and the underlying issues explaining that proportion. It suggested ways of reducing numbers in custody, indicated (strongly) the directions for change and ended, as expected in this decade, with messages about reconciliation.

Change includes the need for self-determination, improving the criminal justice system, breaking the cycle of youth unemployment and substance abuse, coping with alcohol, increasing economic opportunity, improving the obvious disasters of housing and health, and addressing land needs.

There were 19 black deaths in custody last year, despite the $400 million spent by Canberra on "underlying issues". The slanging between federal and state governments, between governments and oppositions, resumed. The cry is for more money, for fewer arrests, for decriminalisation of certain offences. But is that where the answers lie?

The key issue isn't "assisted death", as many thought. It isn't simply suicide in custody, since the rate there is not disproportionate, as many thought. The catastrophe is not so much that Aboriginal youth are over-arrested, grim as that statistic is. The problem is not, as so many think, simply insufficient funds, lack of employment, housing, poor health, racist cops or the mix. There are many impoverished and oppressed societies in which, however ghastly the social environment, survival rather than self-destruction is the reason d'etre.

In much of black Australia, suicide is no longer something alien, for which no Aboriginal language or dialect has a word. The human act of self-inflicted, self-intentional cessation of life has become a pattern - outside of custody suicide rate that was among the lowest has become among the world's highest in a little more than 25 years.

That is a record of some sort. It is also a stark indictment- not so much of our good- or ill-will as our inability to see beyond our diagnostic tools.

We see poverty, ill-health, racism in institutions and procedures; we have learnt something about identity, land, spirituality, traditional beliefs (and unlearnt much of it as fast as it took Hindmarsh to reach its "conclusions").

We learnt a little from the commission, and some black and white historians, about the legacies of history and the consequences of such genocidal policies as the forced removal of children.

But are these factors involved for the teenage suicide and attempted suicide (parasuicide) that is rampant at Mornington Island, Yarrabah, Cherbourg, Mildura, Adelaide, Koonibba, the Kimberley? The works of Dr Ernest Hunter in the latter area, and of Dr Joe Reser in northern Queensland, attest to the cosmic rates of non-custodial suicide (400 per 100,000).

My own research (1989-94) revealed a pattern of daily parasuicides in all but lO of 8O communities. Much of the behaviour was dismissed as "silly" or "attention-seeking". However, girls swallowing liquid paper and thumb tacks, demands attention. Male suicide has now developed its own institutional and cultural roots, forms and idioms.

Two (of 13) types of suicide are, particularly relevant. First, chronic suicide, the masking of a deathwish by the excessive use of alcohol or drugs. Second, existential suicide, the ending of the unending burden of hypocrisy, the meaninglessness of life, the lack of motivation to continue to exist: what the concentration camp survivor Victor Frank calls "purposelessness in all things", especially in future things.

Welfare funds, housing and jobs don't necessarily produce an inner sense of meaning. The oppressive and paternalistic mission and government settlement structures have gone. But so too has much of the reign of social and traditional law, of belief and loyalty systems, of kinship and reciprocity systems, of incest prohibition, of what used to be the best child-rearing and extended family system on earth..

Many communities are not really communities. The social cement has crumbled. Societies have become disordered, and in that milieu, traditional values - of affection, care, respect - have disappeared, replaced by maiming and killing others or self.

What can restore coherence, centrality in their lives? I advocate sport, an activity now proven to lessen violence, delinquency, law-breaking (and need for custody). Problem: one cannot play sport, belong to a team, an identity, a chauvinism, a set of rituals that bind, for 365 days a year. An enduring answer may be the example of Islam in black America, a movement that did more to bring coherence and pride to Afro-Americans than all the millions spent in health, education and welfare.

I think Aboriginal redemption may be found somewhere between such a fundamentalist religion and a radical political movement.

Colin Tatz is professor of Politics at Macquarie University


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