Racism and ‘Real New Zealanders’

In 2011 broadcaster Paul Henry resigned from his job as host of TVNZ’s “Breakfast” after his appallingly racist comments regarding Anand Satyanand.

The comment was compared with statements made by Maori Party MP Hone Harawira, including from his 2009 email: “White motherfuckers have been raping our lands and ripping us off for centuries, and all of a sudden you want me to play along with their puritanical bullshit.” The right wing tried to compare these two attitudes.

To equate these two is fundamentally wrong. It’s basically equating black power movements with white power. The big difference is that in New Zealand, and throughout the world, ‘black’ people are relatively powerless, while ‘white’ European and American men control vast sectors of the world.

Movements for so-called black power; and in Aotearoa particularly movements for tino rangatiratanga, may be racialist but they are not racist. Racism emerged as an pseudo-scientific excuse for the slave trade. It is a farrago of lies designed to buttress the status quo. Black consciousness starts on the other hand from a recognition of the very real racial inequalities in society, and as such, for many people it is the first step toward political consciousness.

The liberal consensus of our ‘bicultural’ or multicultural society is that any discussion of race is off-limits. When Harawira wrote in a private email that “White motherfuckers have been raping our lands and ripping us off for centuries, and all of a sudden you want me to play along with their puritanical bullshit,” it was greeted with howls of outrage.

Harawira was guilty, liberal commentators said, of playing the race card, in the same way Paul Henry was when he suggested Satyanand was not a real New Zealander. But facts are stubborn things: Henry is more of a foreigner than Satyandand and white powerbrokers have ripped off Maori for 150 years.

But if these are the facts, then why do some alienated and disaffected youth call for White Power when it seems obvious that all the powerful people are white? Why was there such widespread support for Henry? Why is Harawira seen as such as threat by thousands of working class Pakeha?

The reason is because, despite the myth of biculturalism, NZ politics, culture and nationalism is saturated with racism. Even soft left nationalism like the “born here” t-shirts reflect this. The Asian-bashing skinhead is only taking the sentiment of those shirts to its logical extreme.

Slave trade

Racism as a world view (as opposed to xenophobia, or fear of strangers, common to many primitive societies) was developed to justify the Atlantic slave trade. Plantation owners in the New World, merchants and industrialists in the Old World, and the politicians who represented them needed to reconcile their desire for cheap labour with their Christian ideology which forbade the enslavement of other men. Their solution was to “The slaveholders…by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the Blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the Black himself … Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers.” simply designate all black people as sub-human: neatly circumventing any moral outrage, while ensuring the economic viability of their businesses.

But it wasn’t just economic – another advantage to a race-based slave system was the ability to play off poor white labourers against black slaves, to divide and conquer.

The “slaveocracy” in the Americas was a tiny, extremely wealthy minority surrounded by thousands of people whom it had enslaved, exploited or conquered. Its greatest fear was that slaves and servants would unite against it. In Europe, the businessmen who benefited from slavery were also forcing the peasantry into wage slavery in their “Satanic mills”.

Abolitionist and ex-slave Frederick Douglass put it this way: “The slaveholders…by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the Blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the Black himself … Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers.” Or, as Douglass also said, “They divided both to conquer each.”

Over time, the institution of racism became firmly established–both as a means of legitimizing slavery, but also as a means of dividing poor people against one other.

Racism in Polynesia

This aspect of racism transferred extremely well to Aotearoa. When capitalism first arrived here, it brought the full force of racism with it. On top of the aforementioned tactic of racial divide and conquer, capitalists unleashed two special tools on the workers of Aotearoa.

The first was the “special” wages for Maori workers. This was justified by the so-called Polynesian mode of production. The bosses figured that since Maori were quite able to live off the land without the “help” of the capitalists then any income they got from working was basically a bonus. So they didn’t pay them, or paid them ‘in kind’.

Even when, after long struggle, it finally became standard practice to actually pay Maori labourers, they still used the Polynesian mode of production to justify paying lower wages to Maori workers.

This of course, also harmed the Pakeha workers – any demands for better pay and conditions could always be met by the bosses threatening to replace them all with Maori workers at half the cost.

The other major tool for dividing and conquering was confiscated land.

Any time that the Pakeha workers started getting too uppity, the ruling class could buy them off with lease or sales of small parcels of land.

One of the first examples of this practice was in 1841.The land became the wedge driven by between Pakeha and Maori who were expropriated and turned into a “reserve army” of labour. The Pakeha worker, when militant, was offered land, so that he ceased to depend for his livelihood solely on wages. In Nelson, the first strike of Pakeha workers for piece work at higher rates took place. The ruling class feared that the labourers would rise and take possession of the fort at Nelson.

At the same time the Maori population, dispossessed of their land and turned into wage workers, also threatened this fort. Unfortunately, the two groups, while both opposed to the ruling class, failed to make common cause, the colonial authorities maintained their power, and the Pakeha workers were bought off by leases or sales of small pieces of land, the very same small pieces of land they had just confiscated from the Maori!

The land became the wedge driven by British imperialism between Pakeha workers and Maori who were expropriated and turned into a “reserve army” of labour. This division between Pakeha and Maori workers remained through most of the nineteenth century: the Pakeha worker, when militant, was offered land, so that he ceased to depend for his livelihood solely on wages.

This offering of land parcels was also common practice with returning servicemen – from the early land wars right through to after World War 2.

It turned out to have multiple benefits for the ruling class. For one thing, it avoided the political, and economic, impact of having large numbers of militant, unemployed, young men just dumped into the cities.

But secondarily, since most land parcels were either on land too marginal, or too small, to be economically viable, most eventually failed, resulting in a steady stream of morally broken, unemployed young men trickling into the cities.

Also, these failed farms could be bought up cheaply by larger landowners expanding their holdings and cementing the place of a tiny agricultural elite in New Zealand.

A legacy of this is the stark split between the rural and urban proletariat and the wealthy farmers in the political landscape of New Zealand.

Anti-PC backlash

Pretty much the most common outlet for racist ideas at the moment is in the form of “anti-PC” rebellion.

Let’s not mess around here. The very mention of the phrase “politically correct” should be met with scorn. Anybody who is being politically correct is just paying lip-service to the issue but the right wing anti-PC brigade uses these exercises in bullshit as an excuse for wholesale attacks on our rights.

The Treaty of Waitangi settlements are highly publicised and no state function is complete without token gestures of respect for Maoritanga, but the gap in living standards between Maori and Pakeha continues to grow. What is far less well known is the way that Maori were far harder hit by the job losses of the 1980s and 1990s. The Waitangi settlements, drip fed from on high, can’t even begin to cover the loss of regular paid work in manufacturing, forestry, freezing works and rail.

Tokenism, like the Treaty of Waitangi settlements, is a smokescreen that hides the reality of racism and creates resentment that shock jocks like Paul Henry and Michael Laws love to tap into.

Soft nationalism

There is a vein of soft nationalism in New Zealand that is best characterised by the “born here” T-shirts. Few people would consider this racism but this is exactly the sentiment Henry tapped into when he accused Satyanand of not being a real New Zealander. Shock jocks argue they are either joking or engaging in ‘robust debate’. They quickly pull their heads in after major public outcry. But it is this sort of “boundary pushing” that opens space for real racists and neo-nazis. History has shown that when the acceptable face of racism makes moves like this, the more hardcore elements are soon to follow. Which is why we need to always be vigilant in shutting down things like this, even if it does just seem like a harmless, if tasteless, joke.

However, while we should expose these ‘jokes’, it is important to recognise that the official ideology of the New Zealand state is anti-racist. After all, the National Government is propped up by the Maori Party. “Playing the race card” can be advantageous for individual politicians – eg Winston Peters – but it is destabilising for the system as a whole

A far more stable solution is to set up a subtle hegemony. A low level of racism that allows John Key to cosy up to the Maori Party, while at the same time half the people locked up in prison are Maori.

But in situations of crisis, it’s division, not stability that the ruling class tries to promote. This can be seen alongside the rise in unemployment in NZ in the early 1990s and most dramatically in Germany in the 1930s. The economic crisis in Europe has led to inspiring resistance but it has also increased the readiness of conservative politicians to invoke racism – as German Chancellor Angela Merkel did when she said multiculturalism had failed because immigrants had failed to integrate.

New Zealand has not yet been plunged into recession as deep as Europe or the USA. If that does happen, we will need to fight not only to defend jobs and services, but also to defeat racism.

Chris Baxter

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  1. […] because he is no more likely to be voted out of office than Hone Harawira is likely to apologise for saying in an email in 2009 “White motherfuckers have been raping our lands and ripping us off for […]

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