Many reports of terrible attacks on Indian students in Australia are making their way into the news, both here and in India. I am a bit disturbed by the repeated discussion of whether or not racism is involved. As I have said before, racism is a real and dangerous issue, but by its nature it often obscures other things.
I doubt that anyone, whether making accusations or denials regarding racism, actually thinks the victim of a random robbery is any less in need of support than the victim of a racially targetted or even motivated attack. Nor is a mixed local community suffering regular attacks any better off than an ethnic community suffering racial attacks. That shouldn't be the issue. What differences does the motivation make? I see two - which group is the indirect victim, now in fear of attack, and the question of what can be done to prevent it.
In itself, coming to public conlusions about such things does little more than speed up the spread of fear about whatever pattern is identified. Even when correct, this may or may not help - it is the response to this that matters. So how does the motivation inform our response. In one sense, it is tempting to identify things as purely opportunistic, since it is hard to know how to combat racism. Perhaps making a big fuss about it is part of creating a culture that will shame the perpetrators and have even greater long-term effects. Perhaps the argument I am disturbed by is necessary after all.
However, even public condemnation does little to stop this sort of thing. Opportunism is easier to deal with - tactics for making the vulnerable less vulnerable have shown success for a long time. There are valuable skills to be learnt in unfamilar situations. History by no means distances racism from preying on the vulnerable. In cases like this, focussing on the opportunistic factors is helpful, as well as the more subtle work against racism and the general policing that is necessary regardless of motivation. These horrors need to be stopped, not just condemned.