As US protests rage, African-Americans urge Australia to also confront racism

With mass protests continuing across the US after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, SBS News talks to African-Americans living in Australia about racism in the US and their new home.

Protests have erupted around the US.

Protests have erupted around the US. Source: Getty

As , African-Americans living in Australia say this country also needs to address underlying racial inequality.

Several members of the African-American community in Sydney told SBS News there are parallels between their experiences and history in the US and that of Indigenous Australians.


Tiffany 'Tip' Payton from North Carolina said the ongoing upheaval in the US should make Australians stop and think about "the racism and the injustices by police towards Aboriginal people here".

"Australians should look inwards instead of sitting at home and saying 'what's going on in the states, that's crazy, that's horrible, that's shocking'. Well, down the street something just as shocking and just as horrible may have happened."

Tiffany Payton is concerned about racism in Australia.
Tiffany Payton is concerned about racism in Australia. Source: Supplied

Like African-Americans, Indigenous Australians are disproportionately the victims of deaths in custody.

Similarities have been drawn between . Both died at the hands of police and were recorded saying "I can't breathe" just before they died.

On Tuesday, NSW Police launched an internal investigation into the arrest of an Indigenous teenager in Sydney after video showed an officer tripping him and forcing him to the ground after a verbal argument. 

"Aussies need to make themselves aware of what is going on with the Aboriginal community instead of pretending they don't exist," Ms Payton said.

She welcomed how some Australians were now taking to the streets in solidarity, .

A protester in Philadelphia this week.
A protester in Philadelphia this week. Source: Getty

Brigette Sancho, a Philadelphia transplant who now works at the University of Technology, Sydney, agreed that the US protests should be a catalyst to reassess Indigenous-non Indigenous relations.

"I think the very first things I noticed when I came into this country in 2008 were - where are the Indigenous people in leadership? Why is there a disproportionate amount of Indigenous Australians who are incarcerated? Why is there an under-representation of Indigenous people in higher education?" she said.

"I think now is the time for us to begin to address that, or at least to amplify the conversation as it relates to racism and the impact on First Nations people."

Brigette Sancho in Sydney.
Brigette Sancho in Sydney. Source: Supplied

However, Tracy Williams, who lived in New York and North Carolina before coming to Sydney, said while Australia may have its faults, he would much rather be based here.

"I'm concerned, to a certain degree, about racism anywhere. But to be totally honest with you ... I feel 100 per cent safer in Australia," he said.

"I'm not saying there's no systemic institutional racism [in Australia]. But it's ahead of the US ... I'm glad to be in this country."

Tracy Williams talks to SBS News.
Tracy Williams talks to SBS News. Source: SBS News

'A modern-day lynching'

George Floyd was arrested in Minneapolis last week on suspicion of using a counterfeit banknote and died when a police officer pressed on his neck.

After video of the event surfaced, the US erupted in protests against police brutality which have often turned violent.

Protestors stand, fists raised, in front of the burning Minneapolis 3rd police precinct.
Protestors stand, fists raised, in front of the burning Minneapolis 3rd police precinct. Source: Getty

"For me, [Mr Floyd's death] cut very deep, especially when I saw the video, I instantly thought - my god, this is happening again ... To see what I feel like is a modern-day lynching happening in broad daylight was just horrible," Ms Sancho told SBS News.

"It hit home because I instantly thought, my god, he actually looks like my brother. That could be my father, that could be my nephews or any man in my family. I just cried and cried.

"Australians really, really need to know - the riots and the protests aren't just a one-off reaction. It's a cumulation of 400 years of injustice and police brutality and racism that's really been at the foundation of how America was built, unfortunately.

"I worry about [my family in the US] all the time ... I worry about them walking outside, my nephews getting in their car and being pulled over, following instructions but then they end up dead. That's just our lived reality."

Brigette Sancho and her siblings in California in 2019.
Brigette Sancho and her siblings in California in 2019. Source: Supplied

Mr Williams said protesting was the only recourse that African-Americans have at this point.

"When there's no other resort, you use that. You use protest. It would be great if you had representation in the halls of power, but if you don't, the only thing now to do is take it to the streets, as we would say in America. So here we are again."

Demonstrators confront law enforcement during a protes in Washington, DC.
Demonstrators confront law enforcement during a protes in Washington, DC. Source: Getty

But while Mr Williams decried large-scale, violent rioting, Ms Payton said it was understandable.

"They're fed up, everyone is fed up. A lot of people have been saying 'you shouldn't be rioting, you shouldn't be acting that way, it needs to be peaceful', but we've had so many peaceful protests for every other incident that's happened before and nothing has happened," she said.

"[Now] things are burning and people all over the world are starting to pay attention. I think it's the right thing to do. Being peaceful isn't working, so I understand 100 per cent why they are reacting the way that they are."

Next steps

Associate Professor Brendon O'Connor from Sydney University's US Studies Centre said the path forward for protesters and their supporters is not clear.

"There are a lot of people who feel let down, not just by the police, but by city governments, state governments, the federal government, who are angry and frustrated and the lid has been blown off," he said.

"The difficult thing now is who do you attach these aims to politically in America, when the political system has been so resistant to major structural changes?

"Both political parties, in some ways, by western democratic standards, are fairly conservative ... Finding champions for these causes may require a young generation of politicians, who are more sensitive to the treatment of African-Americans."

Protestors peacefully demonstrate in Los Angeles.
Protestors peacefully demonstrate in Los Angeles. Source: Getty

Mr Williams said the "social contagion" of racism will only stop if individuals act.

"I would implore Americans as well as people all over to take an examination of your heart and yourselves," he said.

"We have to look within ourselves ... The first thing is self-policing. First, you've got to check yourself, get to a certain level of self-awareness."

Mr Williams also urged people to call out discrimination in any form when they saw it, at home, at work or in public.

"We can't bring George Floyd back but if we want to do something starting today ... Don't tolerate racism anymore in our society."

6 min read
Published 2 June 2020 at 4:17pm
By Nick Baker