The colonial problem
Throughout Anglo colonial states there is a constant habit of defining people who aren’t white as a problem, writes Aaron Smale in this personal essay.
It was a balmy summer evening in the capital and cops were standing over a young brown man.
I was walking down Courtenay Place on a Friday just after finishing work when I stopped to watch the interaction. The two young Pākeha male cops literally stood over a young Māori guy who was sitting on a bench on the footpath. I couldn’t hear the conversation but the body language said more than words could. The police were in the personal space of the young man and were literally talking down to him in a manner that was right on the edge of outright hostility. The young man had a compliant demeanour and wore a patient half-smile.
The cops didn’t get a rise out of the young Māori man and they eventually walked away and hopped in their nearby police car. The young man wandered down the street towards the heaving bars and Friday night revellers.
I was bothered by something, so I approached the police car, knocked on their window and identified myself as a journalist when one of them wound it down. I said I was curious to know why they had been interrogating the young man. They said it was because he had been in breach of liquor bylaws. They looked slightly alarmed and put out by my inquiry.
I saw no alcohol, although the young man had been carrying a bag. His gait and passive response to the police didn’t suggest any intoxication. He was casually but tidily dressed. Furthermore, the whole street was full of people who were drinking on the footpath outside bars, enjoying the weather and winding down from the week. But I didn’t observe the police approaching any of them to see if they were complying with liquor bylaws. Incidentally – or maybe not – they were mostly white, tending towards middle age.
After expressing mild scepticism, I wished the officers a good evening and turned to look for the young guy but he was gone. I can only speculate, but from what I observed he was used to the drill and knew how to avoid escalating the hostility that was being projected towards him. I suspect that if he had pointed out that there were a lot of white people drinking on the sidewalk, the police would not have taken kindly to being questioned and would have gladly found some trivial reason to arrest him. Or he could have simply told them to f**k off, which would have been all the reason they needed to use violence.
That was in 2017. I have interviewed Sir Kim Workman – former policeman, youth aid officer, head of prisons and now justice campaigner – several times in recent years. He mentioned that when he was a young cop in Wellington during the 1960s, the police would blatantly target young Māori .
“In Wellington, where I was an officer, it was not uncommon on a Saturday night to have 30 police officers out on patrol in a city that only had three night clubs and a couple of coffee bars. There was over-policing so you can imagine what happened."
"You'd have two or three cops in a car and they had radio connection with their station. And they'd say, 'there's a group of Māoris and they're singing and one of them has a bottle of beer'. They'd descend on these guys and harass the shit out of them until somebody used an obscene word or stand up to them and then they'd arrest them."
Around the time Sir Kim was learning the ropes as a young police cadet, an American scholar by the name of David Ausubel was doing research in New Zealand care of a Fulbright scholarship. Ausubel was an educational psychologist by trade and he took a particular interest in Māori and their place in New Zealand society during a period when this was being redefined.
He observed that: “I was initially puzzled when discussing commonplace occurrences as anti-Māori prejudice and discrimination to find New Zealanders staring at me incredulously and exclaiming, ‘but that simply isn’t so. I’ve lived here all my life and have neither seen nor heard of any of the practices you mention.’… I soon realised that spending a lifetime in a particular country is certainly no guarantee that one is well-informed about everything that goes on in it.”
Ausubel’s book provoked a hue and cry from politicians and editorial writers throughout the country. White Pākeha men in positions of authority took offence at an American academic punching a hole in the nation’s self-perpetuating myth of wonderful race relations. This outrage burned brightly despite concrete evidence of racism, including blatant segregation in places like Pukekohe.
What Ausubel recognised, and his critics failed to, is that racism was a deep-seated reality in New Zealand. New Zealanders thought racism was a problem in the United States but not in their own backyard. Ausubel again: “On numerous occasions my right to even discuss such problems as race relations or juvenile delinquency in New Zealand was challenged on the grounds that the American counterparts of these problems were manifestly more serious.”
Ausubel’s words are just as relevant today. As the world watches America exploding because of police brutality towards African Americans, many Pākeha New Zealanders will assume that all is well and that couldn’t happen here. Those same Pākeha will react with incredulity if Māori , Polynesians or other groups of people who aren’t white start talking about racism in Aotearoa.
But the origins of the racism that is tearing the United States apart has deep parallels with New Zealand and the origins are the same.
New Zealand – like the United States, like Canada, like Australia – were colonial states built on violence carried out against indigenous and African American peoples. The success of those states, and indeed the success of capitalism itself, relied on the exploitation and theft of the land, resources and labour of indigenous peoples and African Americans. The cotton that was one of the central raw materials of British and Anglo-American industrialisation was grown and harvested by slave labour in the southern states of America, land that Choctaw, Cherokee and other indigenous peoples were driven off with violence.
Justifying that violence required an intellectual framework and popular culture that defined those peoples as inferior and not worthy of equal rights. It also required that various institutions be designed to contain and control those populations in various ways to maintain that domination.
Those institutional habits and cultural assumptions didn’t suddenly disappear (if they did, it would be handy to know when that happened because I must have missed the memo). They have simply evolved and become more sophisticated and opaque in the way they operate. The language has changed but the underlying assumptions remain the same. The neoliberal ideology of the last 30 plus years has been very good at dressing up racism as market forces.
Ausubel’s book The Fern and the Tiki: An American View of New Zealand also landed at a crucial turning point in the country’s history. The Māori population was not only growing rapidly, that young population was moving into urban centres. A similar trend had occurred in the United States as African Americans moved out of the South into urban centres like New York, Chicago and LA.
In the US as in New Zealand the urban areas that are occupied by black and brown people are equated in the mind of the white majority with crime and poverty. And the blame for that crime and poverty is attributed to those who experience it. What is largely ignored is that black and brown people didn’t end up in certain urban areas by accident. Nor was their poverty something of their own making. During that urbanisation process white society and those in power were deeply uncomfortable with black and brown people moving into space occupied by the white majority. A whole web of policies and practices made sure black and brown people were funneled into certain areas and then those areas were heavily policed to contain and control them. It was about keeping them out of white space. And education and economic policies have conveniently perpetuated that separation.
Pākeha in New Zealand, and white people in the United States, often find these patterns hard to comprehend. The reasons for this are multiple but in simple terms they don’t know what they don’t experience or see. If you’re not on the receiving end of racism from the cops in the streets or policy makers in the capital, then it’s out of sight, out of mind. The media too has failed to inform its audience of the experience of large chunks of society. And then it jumps on the bandwagon when the frustration and anger boil over, giving wall-to-wall coverage of the rage but barely touching on its cause. In fact, the coverage often perpetuates the stereotypes.
In the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch massacre there was a slogan that did the rounds – “this is not us.” Of course only one person is responsible for the bloody slaughter that day. But such a bland response to his crimes displayed a general unwillingness on the part of Pākeha New Zealand to confront the milder forms of white supremacy that degrade and diminish people every day.
Jacinda Ardern has, rightly or wrongly, gained an international reputation for being a leader who responds with compassion and kindness to such events.
But it is under her watch that the police are rolling out a trial of armed police units to patrol New Zealand communities. One of the sites for the trial is South Auckland, the largest Polynesian city in the world. And yet the police had the gall to justify this by pointing to the murderous actions of a white supremacist. It’s yet another example of New Zealand following in the failed footsteps of American policies. Do we really want the militarisation of the police that we see in the US, with its culture of violence towards minorities?
Ardern announced a royal commission to inquire into the abuse of children in state custody, most of whom were Māori. And yet this same Government is looking to go ahead building a prison for 10-16 year olds, similar to institutions like Kohitere that will be the focus of the royal commission’s investigations.
You would have thought any such decisions should be put on hold until the commission has carried out its work before we charge ahead making the same mistakes. It calls into question the Government’s sincerity in making meaningful changes and makes the commission look like an exercise in window dressing.
This is reinforced by a structural change made under Labour that has gone little noticed and was certainly not announced with any great fanfare - Oranga Tamariki has been included under the public service justice grouping to sit alongside police, court and corrections. Vulnerable children are put into the same grouping as crime. The racial disparities are glaring in both.
Child welfare has traditionally sat within the various iterations of the welfare system. Up to the early 1970s it sat within the education department. It’s almost like Jacinda’s Government is acknowledging what has always been the case – there’s a direct pipeline from child welfare through into the criminal justice system. Instead of child welfare being treated as a matter of social policy, it’s treated as criminal justice policy. Let’s tag them early so we can jump on them as soon as they turn 17.
I’m currently researching for a PhD in history, focused on Māori children in state custody. I’m only in the early stages but it’s already apparent that we’ve looked to the US for decades when it comes to economic and social policy, believing they are the world leaders we must emulate. In certain areas that admiration is possibly justified. In others it’s insanity. We’ve also followed a similar trajectory as other colonised countries in its treatment of indigenous people with the same results.
Throughout Anglo colonial states there is a constant habit of defining people who aren’t white as a problem. It constantly comes up in the language – in the US it was called the Negro problem or the Indian problem, in Australia it’s the Aboriginal problem, in New Zealand it’s the Māori problem. Maybe it’s not a Native American, African American, Aboriginal or Māori problem. Maybe it’s a racism problem. Maybe it’s a colonial problem. And maybe it’s white people who need to take a look at themselves and make more effort to understand how institutions work for them but too often victimize people who are not like them. Then they might want to demand change instead of projecting the problem onto people who aren’t white.
The violence of the police in the US and the enraged response to it from people who have had enough is simply America living out its history. The country was founded on institutional racism and violence and has struggled throughout its history to deviate from that path, despite the resistance and fight for equality by many.
Likewise, the young Māori man and the Pākeha cops who bailed him up on that Wellington street that night were simply following a similar path that our country has been on since its inception. One difference between New Zealand and the US is that their cops routinely carry guns and inflict violence with impunity. We seem determined to follow that example.
Corrections data show, and former police commissioner Mike Bush acknowledged, that our criminal justice system is racially biased. But that institutional bias is simply a reflection of the society it is built on.
Former chief justice Dame Sian Elias has warned if our society doesn’t take a different path regarding that failure it will be a “recipe for civil discord.” We ignore her and what is happening in the US at our peril. Where America goes, we tend to blindly follow.
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