On the benefits of ethnic ghettoes

The migrant dream should not be the subject of shame

photo of a Chinese-inspired arch in Cabramatta Freedom plaza in Cabramatta

In the mosaic of modern multicultural Australia, it is unsurprising that Pauline Hanson’s trademark post-fact xenophobia and fearful cultural insensitivity towards migrant communities render her an outlier from politics and reality itself.

In her oft-reproduced 1996 maiden Parliamentary speech, Hanson, describing the impending continental Asian invasion, remarked that migrant communities “form ghettoes”. A deeply contentious term, the ‘ethnic ghetto’ exists in the right wing imagination as a suburb or geographic area featuring a high-density population of minority ethnic or migrant diasporas. Accompanying this are connotations of danger rather than security, slumhood rather than suburbia, poverty rather than privilege. In 2016, Hanson declared the south-eastern Sydney suburb of Hurstville the textbook case. On the surface, Hurstville undoubtedly fits the bill — the 2011 census indicated that 26 per cent of its residents were born in Asia.

Interestingly, the same census found that a total of 5.3 million overseas-born migrants lived in Australia, amounting to a comparable 26 per cent of the population. Ironically, if Hanson’s position that Hurstville is a ‘ghetto’ is accepted, by the same statistical proportionality, wider Australia must resemble one large ethnic ‘ghetto.’ It does, after all, have a higher proportion of overseas-born residents than the United States (14 per cent), Canada (22 per cent) and the United Kingdom (13 per cent). While it’s true that the top two countries of origin for immigrants are still New Zealand and the United Kingdom, at least by the numbers, Hurstville’s proportion of overseas-born residents is unremarkable.

This paradox indicates that the ‘ghetto’ is emblematic of White Australia’s moral panic rather than anything else. Yet aside from all the reactionary bluster,  these ‘ghettoes’ provide a safe asylum for the people who live within them. Buried deep in the peripheries of the urban fringe and away from the CBD’s sprawling maze of plate-glass skyscrapers, multicultural spaces like Vietnamese Cabramatta and pan-Islamic Lakemba offer a more intimate and self-legitimising cultural space which purposefully functions separately from mainstream racial narratives, accelerating the accumulation of social and commercial capital, intergenerational friendship networks and professional contacts over a single lifetime.

In these places, ethnic ghettoes provide economic networks to new migrant groups, whilst reducing the risk of rejection and discrimination. The local labour market produces an effective launching pad to higher earnings, ultimately enabling migrants to graduate from the ghetto’s informal sub-economy and into the fray of the wider domestic market, according to key findings by the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA). It can be all too easy in a neoliberal society to myopically judge the economic productivity of places like Cabramatta against the CBD as the prevailing measure of success; this sort of hierarchisation inevitably occurs along racial divides and ignores the class and power differentials otherwise used to define and label ghettoes.

These close-knit communities built around shared cultural affinity afford migrants the long-term interpersonal stability necessary for entry-level small businesses to grow and build trust through the sacred handshake of a contract. This is particularly important when research by SBS showed that up to one third of small businesses in Australia are currently operated by entrepreneurial migrants. Speaking their mother tongues freely, migrants in ghettos are able to galvanise their self-sufficiency by trading ethnically unique products and services. The ghetto sub-economy is even further bolstered by informal credit unions like the hui in the historic New York Chinatown, multiplying circulation of money and consumption.

But even this fundamentally neglects the ghetto’s cultural purpose. These communities must be judged on their own terms, beyond mere facilitation of an economic subsystem. Ghettoes are reaffirmations of the migrant identity, a low-cost acclimatisation to a new life, a first step towards autonomy and an antidote to the existential fear of the migrant parent that they have utterly abandoned their home, subjecting their children to a foreign world where they will gradually, inevitably lose sight of their history.

The larger migrant narrative and the ghetto is not perfectly utopic; most times, it remains a messy site of conflict, pitting the powerful forces of the cultural past against the present and the vision for a multicultural future. But I remain optimistic that these ghettoes are never ghettoes to the people who reside in them. For us, these places are home.