Shane Te Pou: ‘Post-racial’ Aotearoa a myth

Aotearoa is nowhere near being in a position to discard policies targeting Māori disadvantage, argues Shane Te Pou 

According to our new Finance Minister, programmes targeting Māori are past their expiry date. When it comes to tackling disadvantage, we are colour-blind now, so Grant Robertson says. He didn't use the phrase, but it’s not hard to infer that, from his perch in Wellington Central, Robertson seems to believe New Zealand society has entered a “post-racial” era.

Recall that phrase — post-racial — bandied about (exclusively, if I recall, by white people) in the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008. It was a myth then. It’s a myth now.

Ten years on, Obama’s successor as US President is a thinly-concealed racist who surrounds himself with like-minded bigots, and who defends neo-Nazis as “very fine people”. His chief of staff bemoans that the Civil War, fought over slavery, couldn’t have been resolved through compromise — as if some form of partial enslavement was preferable to emancipation.

Closer to home, the Turnbull government at times comes across like a Trump cover band, vilifying “African youth gangs”, treating refugees worse than livestock, and using immigration as a public policy rationale to gin up angst among white Australians about anyone who doesn’t look or talk like them, or has the audacity to worship a non-Christian God.

Progress is never linear, never inevitable. A backlash invariably awaits.

So are things really so hunky-dory here in Aotearoa that we can safely discard policies targeting Māori disadvantage?

No, they are not.

Jacinda Ardern’s five days at Waitangi were an undeniable public relations triumph. Far more experienced politicians have failed where she succeeded. The resulting goodwill stands the PM in good stead among Māori, as it should.

And yet Robertson’s declaration is troubling.

By averting our gaze from the persistent inequality afflicting tangata whenua, the risk is we will reverse the gains for which we have fought so hard.

It rests on a fallacy that tackling disadvantage is a zero-sum game; that non-Māori are somehow missing out on their fair share when governments funds programmes like Whānau Ora. This is nonsense. Of course we should preserve and expand the safety net for Kiwis regardless of background. But none of this precludes continuing to address Māori needs, which arise from particular historical injustices that continue to constrain opportunity for our people.

It’s not either-or, but both-and. And it’s frankly dispiriting to see some Māori commentators capitulate so easily on this point, seemingly out of another kind of tribal loyalty. If Steven Joyce had echoed Robertson’s sentiment, would the reaction have been as sanguine? You know the answer.

New Zealand governments only turned their minds to Māori disadvantage in any serious way a generation ago, but there’s no doubt we’ve come a long way.

As a Māori, I have lived through the cultural renaissance, which has led to an overdue improvement in the lives of many of our people. This is thanks to growing tolerance and a now bipartisan willingness to right historical wrongs through a robust Treaty settlement process. Note the exasperated eye rolling that greets Don Brash’s latest tone-deaf tirade.

But Māori communities, especially in far-flung areas, continue to endure economic, educational and health outcomes that should put the rest of us to shame. Is this just generic poverty? Or does this reality emerge from deeper, structural problems affecting Māori communities — the almost complete absence of intergenerational wealth, chronic over-reliance on state handouts, Third World infrastructure, shortage of secure employment, dispersed and hard to access government services, the list goes on.

Is the grotesque overrepresentation of young Māori in our prison system really just a reflection of straightforward socio-economics or is something else at work? If you truly believe the former, I've got an as-yet unfunded Northland bridge to sell you.

The impending closure of charter schools is another sign the Government believes Māori and non-Māori should be treated “equally”, seemingly oblivious to the stark reality that PPTA-sanctioned, one-size-fits-all schooling, has been failing us for decades.

My kids are part-Māori, part-Chinese. Their generation will not usher in not a “post-racial Aotearoa” either, but I have no doubt it will be one where diversity is celebrated and where the ethnicity of your parents will have little or no bearing on your opportunities to thrive. But we’re not there yet. And by averting our gaze from the persistent inequality afflicting tangata whenua, the risk is we will reverse the gains for which we have fought so hard.

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