(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, May 28.)
Trevor Richards, once famous as the driving force behind Halt All Racist Tours (HART), recently wrote an essay in which he reflected on the history of New Zealand race relations.
He recalled growing up in a country where history was viewed entirely through a Pakeha lens and the notion of racism was hardly acknowledged.
I grew up in the same era and recognised the country he described. We learned little about Maori history or culture at school and the Maori world only occasionally overlapped with that of white New Zealand. Racism was something I associated with America’s Deep South.
Richards went on to deride what he clearly regarded as a smug belief that New Zealand enjoyed the best race relations in the world. I found this criticism a bit more problematical.
I can see why, when viewed through an ideologically pure 21st century lens, aspects of the old New Zealand could be seen as racist, if only in a passive way. But I also believe a persuasive case can be made that by world standards, our race relations were admirable.
We were a highly integrated and harmonious society. It’s easy to judge ourselves harshly now, but it was reasonable to look at race relations in other countries – Australia and the United States, for example – and conclude that ours were pretty good.
Of course much has changed for the better since then, and people like Richards can take some of the credit. But I wonder what purpose is served by denigrating past conduct and attitudes, other than to congratulate himself on his own enlightened thinking. It struck me as an exercise in presentism: the tendency to interpret and judge the past according to contemporary values.
And here’s something else that struck me. Richards freely used the words “racism” and “racist” to describe the New Zealand of that era, but nowhere did he attempt to define those terms. No one ever does. I think it suits activists to leave them loose and undefined. That way the words can mean whatever the user wants them to mean.
On that note, it was disappointing that Sir Robert Jones abandoned his defamation action earlier this year against the Maori film maker Renae Maihi, who had called him a racist. I had hoped the trial might result in the judge attempting to pin down the exact meaning of the word.
For what it’s worth, here’s my own attempt at a definition. I believe racism is the belief that some races are inherently superior or inferior to others, and that discriminatory treatment is therefore justified. But discussion about racism in New Zealand is muddied by the fact that the definition has deliberately been stretched to encompass virtually any statement or action that is perceived as not favourable to Maori or other minority groups.
We are told, for example, that it’s racist not to have unelected Maori representatives with voting powers on city or district councils. Or that it’s racist to object to roadblocks set up to inhibit the public’s freedom of movement and to police iwi “borders” that have no basis in law. In effect, any opposition to the activist Maori agenda is routinely condemned as racist.
But surely another definition of racism is the assertion by one racial group of rights that are not available to others. Try to imagine, for example, how far a Pakeha group would get trying to block public roads without legal authority. Is this the new racism?
Truth is, the situation described by Richards has largely been turned on its head. We have moved down a path to a form of institutionalised separatism so well-entrenched that people barely notice it.
We have special funding for Maori affected by Covid-19 (over and above the billions for the community at large, as if Maori suffer differently), separate Maori streams in public policy formation, an unelected and inscrutable iwi leaders’ forum that exerts influence at the highest levels of government (and behind closed doors), Maori control over lakes and rivers, state-funded Maori media outlets that confuse journalism with advocacy, special courts for Maori youth and “cultural reports” for Maori defendants, preferential quotas for Maori medical trainees and elaborate mechanisms for iwi engagement on major public projects, regardless of whether they specifically impact on Maori. I could go on.
Then there’s the matter of the Maori seats in Parliament, which survive even though 20 of the 27 Maori MPs currently in Parliament were elected from the general rolls. Oh, and the country has acquired a quasi-official Maori name without any public mandate. (If we want to become Aotearoa, fine – but let’s do it properly, through a referendum.)
In almost every area of public policy, Maori are treated as having separate, exclusive needs. We have been persuaded that this is necessary to remedy 180 years of disadvantage. But at what point do we realise we’ve over-corrected and created a society where racial division is permanently built in and officially sanctioned?