Former prime minister John Howard has come under fire after he said he didn’t believe Australia had any existing underlying racism issues.

Mr Howard, 81, spoke candidly on ABC’s Australia Talks on Monday night, making it clear to host Nazeem Hussain that he did not believe the 2005 Cronulla Beach riots were fuelled by racism.

It is not a far cry from the same sentiments he had made in the aftermath 16 years ago, as prime minister.

Thousands rallied in Cronulla to “protest”, after it was reported two volunteer surf lifesavers were assaulted when they responded to complaints of young men with a Middle Eastern appearance who were verbally harassing girls on the beach in Sutherland Shire.

A text message that went around the suburbs labelled the day of the riot as a “Leb and Wog bashing day.”

While numbers are not clear, several people with Middle Eastern appearances were violently assaulted.

Mr Howard appeared on Australia Talks and was probed for whether he agreed with a National Survey that ruled 76 per cent of 60,000 Australians said the nation is lurking with underlying racism.

“That has not been my experience. I have to respectfully, to that 76 per cent, say I don’t think there is underlying racism in Australia,” he responded.

He went on to say that while he does believe there are racists in Australia, it is a “supremely pessimistic view” to suggest there is a racism problem in the country.

His comments did not sit well with viewers at home, with dozens taking to social media to accuse him of being detached from reality.

ABC radio host Beverly Wang took to Twitter to say it was obvious a white male being asked about racism would say he hadn’t experienced it.

“Yes that can be his answer but it doesn’t speak to the reality of systemic racism, which definitely exists,” she said.

One woman went on to call his remarks “bloody arrogant”.

Activist and equality advocate Tarang Chawla, the brother of Nikita Chawla who was murdered by her husband in 2015, said it is time for those who deny racism to open their ears.

“Hearing former PM John Howard say it’s pessimistic to think there’s underlying racism in Australia tells me that he, like other men with privilege, have little knowledge of what life is like for many of us,” he wrote.

This article originally appeared on Over60.