On not being racist (and other racist ideas)

“We have not lectured to you about the allegations of human rights abuses in your own countries,” he said

“These include the extreme disadvantage suffered by indigenous people in New Zealand”

Frank Bainimarama (Source: RNZ)

It’s a bit crap when dictators are criticizing you; even worse when they are right.  Still, because he is a dictator it does make it easier to shrug off his points.  We’re good at that here.  Shrugging things off.


I was enjoying The Good Wife on Netflix, until I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.  Cook County in Chicago, where The Good Wife is set, is actually specifically mentioned in Alexander’s book.  It’s not mentioned in a good way.  Once you’ve read The New Jim Crow you notice a few things about The Good Wife.  Like you notice that when someone gets appointed to the State’s Attorney Office to check on racial bias in plea bargains and sentences the main characters, the ones we’re supposed to identify with, look at it askance or roll their eyes.  Either that or they get prickly because someone might be going to suggest that they are racially biased.

You also notice how drugs are handled in the show.  There aren’t very many.  Which is amazing because 70% of cases in Cook County are about drugs.  Of course the law firm that is the centre of this show is white, and expensive, so it probably would live in a sheltered world, but the State’s Attorney also seems to be quite free of any drug related matters for the vast proportion of its time which is pretty remarkable.  The main (only) drug plot line focuses on the local drug lord who is black, and suave, and has lots of legitimate business interests.

Michelle Alexander repeats one of the key points of her book The New Jim Crow quite a few times because it’s worth repeating: drug use is fairly evenly distributed across all racial groups.  In fact, drug use may be highest among white male professionals.  She repeats her point because people think that drug crime is black crime.  That’s because black people are targeted and imprisoned disproportionately.  Because at all levels of the justice system people are racist, and the media – which is also racist – promulgates racism.

Most white people will have now stopped reading because they are not racist.  But they are.  I’m white and racism impacts me; it impacts my thinking.  I am aware of my biases and I fight hard against them and I think I am winning some ground back, but racism is so embedded in me and my culture that it is something I have to firstly be conscious of, and secondly, consciously address.  Being angry about the situation is helpful.  It’s certainly better than being complacent.  Which is what happens when people say “I’m not racist”.  Or when we do that shrugging thing.

Let’s look at this bold claim about racism, and let’s use me as an example.  Let’s walk me down an imaginary street at night and point out the group of three men walking towards me talking loudly.  How do I react if those men are white?  Well, I get a little tense, but I keep going, and assume everything will be fine.  What about if they’re brown?  Well, honestly, I get tenser.  Why is that?  It’s not because of bad experiences with Maori or Pasifika people.  The opposite is true actually.  For the last ten years I’ve had hundreds of positive experiences with people from those groups.  I get a little tenser because of two things: (1) the media showing me violent people “of colour” constantly, and (2) high numbers of Maori people being in prison (which my brain somewhere deduces must mean that type of person is more likely to be dangerous).

Now we need to do two things.  Deal with the specific and deal with the general trend.  The general trend tells you that there are far more Maori in prison than there should be, and that a lot of those people are there for violent offenses.  It is therefore intelligent, in my specific instance of walking down the street, to be cautious.  Fine.  I can’t argue with you.  Even though it’s unfair to those three imaginary men walking past me.  But if this dynamic plays out in the same way in the heads of the police, and the lawyers, and the jurors, and the judges, and the community at large then we’re going to have a big problem.  Actually, scratch that – we do have a big problem.

As part of our research, we looked back at the number of police apprehensions over the past 10 years. It’s roughly the same number for Pakeha as  Maori – 875,000 versus 868,000.

But if the number of Maori apprehensions were adjusted to match the proportion of the population made up by Maori, the number of Maori apprehensions would reduce to about 300,000.

Think about that for a minute: half a million fewer arrests of Maori. Imagine what it would mean not just for Maori but for our country if that was the reality.

Source: Stuff

Now here’s the rub.  The Stuff article focuses a lot on racism and institutional racism.  And it is right to do so, but it doesn’t spend a lot of time on colonialism.  Racism explains some of the crime statistics, but it doesn’t explain them all.  A certain group of people are over-represented in the justice system because of racism, but also because they are actually offending at a disproportionate rate, and that is because of the impacts on one group of colonisation.

What the article quotes on this is 100% accurate:

She [ Auckland University sociologist Tracey McIntosh] also thinks you can’t have a conversation about institutional racism without having a conversation about colonisation – especially when you consider that high imprisonment of indigenous people is also a feature of Australia, Canada and other “settler states”.

“For many, they think Maori draw on colonisation as an excuse for all of our problems. The fact is you have to look at historical antecedents and recognise alienation of land and resources and the huge intergenerational impacts – we absolutely have to acknowledge it.”

My only quibble with that quote would be the phrase “we… have to acknowledge it”.  That would be a good start, but – to quote Kendrick Lamar – “shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass”.  We can acknowledge all we like, but nothing will change unless we alter how our society operates.

One thing we could do to try and help with acknowledgement would be to stop using words that hide race when we are talking about issues in our society.  Some popular words that hide race are: inequality, homelessness, child poverty, socio-economic and decile.  Rising inequality means what?  What I suspect it means is that the white population is becoming wealthier than the Maori population.  And yes, I do know that there are many races living in New Zealand.  We can, if you like, broaden it out and say: the White and Asian population is getting richer than the Maori, Pasifika and MELA population.  But let’s not, because colonisation is a specific relationship and has a specific kind of harm attached to it.  I would also suggest that if a system is racist then it will use stereotypes and shorthand to apply homegrown judgments to other groups.

Not much will change unless the majority change it, and the majority remains white.  Altruism has never, I think, motivated a group to destabilise its own system for the benefit of others.  Which, in a nutshell, explains why actual justice and empowerment for Maori is unlikely, and why actual action on something like climate change is almost impossible.

Only an idiot like me would keep at it.



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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō