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No, Australia is not the US. Our shocking racial injustice is all our own

Greg Jericho
Photograph: David Crosling/EPA

This week we discovered in the March quarter the economy went backwards for the first time since 2011 and we are now obviously in a recession. But that is not was shocked me. 

This week the retail figures for April were released showing our spending fell 17%, and our spending on clothes and footwear fell 54% – meaning in April we spent the same amount on clothing as we did in 1995 when our population was 30% smaller. But that is not what shocked me. 

What shocked me was on Thursday the latest prison statistics were released showing that 4.7% of all Indigenous men are in jail compared with just 0.3% of all non-Indigenous men.

It should not shock me. 

After all, these figures are not new. The gap is higher now than in the past, but not so much that anyone who is aware of the issue would be surprised. 

And I was aware of the numbers – they were there, sort of in the ether of things I know about but don’t really turn my attention towards. Thursday was the first time I decided to put the data into graph form and it took my breath away. 

Related: Australia’s shameful record on black deaths in custody

I actually double-checked , because it is one thing to hear the numbers, but to see the rate of Indigenous men in prison towering above the rest is somewhat confronting. 

But of course not as confronting as is the reality for Indigenous men who make up the graph.

And of course those who would prefer to push that reality to the back of their minds will search for reasons: “Oh yes, that’s men, what about women?” 

Well, the rate of Indigenous women in jail, as with all women, is much lower than for men, but the racial gap is actually much worse. 

While Indigenous men are 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous men, Indigenous women are 22 times more likely to be in jail. 

Indigenous men make up 28.6% of all men in prison, but Indigenous women account for 36% of all women behind bars. 

And it is not because Indigenous people are committing that many more crimes. In New South Wales, while Indigenous people make up 26% of all people in prison, they only account for around 15% of all crimes committed in that state. 

Related: Deaths inside: every Indigenous death in custody since 2008 tracked – interactive

Even this is astonishingly bad given they account for just over 3% of the state’s population. 

These figures were released in the week our prime minister responded to suggestions people might protest against racial injustice in concert with those occurring in America by saying “there’s no need to import things happening in other countries here to Australia. I mean, Australia is a fair country ... I mean, Australia is not the United States.”

It’s an odd position for Morrison to take given his penchant for importing culture wars from the USA, such as undermining the importance of the Acknowledgement of Country by now adding the Americanism of thanking men and women “for their service” before each speech.

But it also ignores that we have little to boast about even by comparison with the US. 

African Americans make up 12% of the adult population, but 33% of the US prison population; in Australia the ratio for Indigenous people is 3% of the population and 29% of the prisoners.

If we could just replicate the ratio of African Americans in prison for Indigenous people, total prison numbers in Australia would fall by around 22%. 

When things would so greatly improve by only being as bad as the US, you know things are in a woeful state. 

If the rate of Indigenous men in prison was the same as that of non-Indigenous men, rather than having 11,682 Indigenous men in prison there would be just 760 – cutting the total male prison population by more than a third.

These figures don’t occur without systemic racism throughout our society – relating to employment, incomes, education, health: all the things that may put people in situations where they are more likely to commit crime combined with a justice system that appears to both seek them out more, views their actions more as crimes and then treats them more harshly.

No, we are not America, but that is nothing to brag about, and we need to face up to our own problems.