See That hypothetical Year 10 lesson on “White Australia” (13 January 2008).
There was a rather favourable review by Nicholas Rothwell in The Weekend Australian of Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds (Cambridge 2008), but it isn’t online. That link to Google Books does tell you what you need to know, however. For more of what the book may offer see Marilyn Lake, Revisiting age-old racial anxieties (The Age February 25, 2008.) It looks very interesting. An earlier book by Reynolds that is also relevant is Nowhere People (2005), connected to which is Australia’s Eugenic Heritage from Radio National 22 April 2007.
I would add Chapters 9 and 10 of Frank Welsh’s Great Southern Land.
I do not believe Australians are any more (or less) racist than most other people, but the point of those items just mentioned is to set what happened in Australia during and just after the coming of Federation in a wider context. There is no doubt that racism was pretty much an unquestioned assumption at that time: white people just were superior: a pathetic delusion, maybe, but almost inevitable in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I think I would aim for empathy, in such a context, with Australia’s tiny population at the arse end of the world, as one of our PMs is alleged once to have put it. There would have seemed much to fear. The Boxer Rebellion, itself another form of racism arguably, if not “white” this time, and the amazing rise of Japan — though this was much favoured by the British government at that time — would have given cause for thought. So would the practice of importing Pacific Islanders (“kanakas”) as virtual slaves in Queensland. Anxiety of distance and isolation, vulnerability, a desire to protect the amazingly good conditions, comparatively, which Australian workers enjoyed — all these things explain why almost everyone in Australia was in favour of the White Australia policy for so long.
None of which is to deny the racism, or to now be glad that in most respects that moment, and that world-view, is in the past, and no longer holds.
Sad but predictable though, in another time and context, to see Robert Mugabe, one of the world’s most incompetent and tragic “leaders”, acknowledging that his people are starving, but blaming not himself and his ill-considered ideological policies, which have caused the problem, but rather “British racism”. That is as choice an example as you can hope to meet of the folly of explaining everything as “racist”. And, I hasten to add, Mugabe is just a dill and a skunk. His being black is unfortunate, perhaps, for other blacks — especially Zimbabweans — but has nothing to do with his ineptitude, except that he insists on playing the race card to excuse himself.