opinion

There's no fairytale ending to the Goodes saga.

The good news is that booing of Adam Goodes largely disappeared over the weekend. The bad news is that most people still don’t believe the booing was racist in the first place, writes Peter Lewis.

The booing may have quieted but any hope that the Adam Goodes saga has resolved itself as a feel-good story of national reconciliation is wishful thinking.

The good news is that the Geelong public did heed the pleas not to jeer an Indigenous footballer, one who had been named Australian of the Year for his stance on racism.

But as this week’s Essential Report shows, the crowd’s silence does not mean the majority of Australians accept the underlying premise that the people who boo Goodes are being racist.

Q. Do you think the people who booed Adam Goodes were being racist or not being racist?

What to make of these results? The problem with quantitative polls is that the numbers provide as many questions as answers.

What is clear is that the near unanimity of opinion - from the mainstream media, at both ends of the paper, the AFL community and sections of the national leadership - that the booing was racist has not resonated with the public.

What is less clear, despite all the hypotheses put forward by the small coterie of commentators defending the booing of Goodes, is what is actually driving nearly half the population to reject the racism argument.

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Is it the "he deserves it" argument, that bounced between accusations of on-field diving to the misrepresentations of his treatment of the teenager who he singled out for abusing him at the MCG two years ago?

Is it the "booing is a fact of footy and he's being too precious" argument - a mutation of free speech principles fuelled by a wilful colour-blindness that erases the experience of the victim?

Or is it just that the "racist" word is a step too far for most Australians? Maybe the booing is race-ish, but not deserving of the full condemnation the word carries.

What's also worth noting here is that when we ask people in general terms whether Australia has an issue with racism, the majority are prepared to reflect that there is a problem.

Q. For each of the following forms of intolerance, please indicate to what extent you think it is a problem in Australia.

But while 54 per cent of Australians are prepared to accept that racism against Indigenous Australians is a large or moderate problem for Australia, less than 30 per cent accept the booing of an Indigenous footballer meets that standard.

Could it be that we are prepared to confront the racism issue as a general concept, but we resist applying it to specific examples?

Ironically, the night that Goodes lit the flame of this issue by calling out abuse occurred at the end of the week he had launched the "Racism. It Stops With Me" campaign for the Australian Human Rights Commission.

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The point of that campaign was to educate and empower people to name racism and refuse to be bystanders anymore. Essential was involved in the research that framed this campaign, talking to a range of mostly white Australians about how they perceive racism.

Adam Goodes. Image: Getty.

The general consensus in the groups was that racism was something "other people" indulged in. At one end of the spectrum, most people were repulsed by overt racist slurs, but didn't feel they had any idea how to intervene in support of someone without becoming a target themselves.

At the other end, many believed the use of racial stereotypes in jokes was just good clean fun and that people who were offended should lighten up a little.

But at the heart of our views on racism was a disconnect between intent and effect. By and large we see "racism" as something people commit rather than something people experience.

The campaign Goodes launched in 2013 was aimed at bridging this gap, portraying racism as a concept that lives between cause and effect, something that can be named and confronted and addressed.

As he has for much of his career on the field, Goodes has led this campaign from the front, spectacularly so, winning the admiration of the nation, even at the expense of making us feel uncomfortable.

But as these results show, it is way too early to blow full-time in this particular contest.

Peter Lewis is a director of Essential Media Communications.
This post originally appeared on the ABC and was republished here with full permission. 
© 2015 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved. Read the ABC Disclaimer here

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