Unless you were living under a stone, you will know that towards the end of May a black American by the name of George Floyd was killed when a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, while three other police officers looked on. And you will also know that this event has triggered huge protests against racism, not only in the US but throughout the world.
Some have pointed out that George Floyd was no model citizen, but the vast majority of people believe that whether Mr Floyd was a model citizen or not is completely irrelevant: the police action was utterly inexcusable, and the officers concerned have rightly been charged.
I strongly agree with that. Having lived for five years in the United States myself, I also know that there is still a deep pool of racism in American society, albeit one which is much smaller than it was two, three or four decades ago. Not long before Mr Floyd was born in the 1970s, inter-racial marriage was illegal in more than a dozen US states. Opinion polls today suggest that 90% of Americans are comfortable with inter-racial marriage.
It was great to see the very large demonstrations against police violence, and racism more generally, which followed Mr Floyd’s death, and deeply disturbing (though perhaps not surprising) that a small minority used the demonstrations as an excuse for violence and looting.
Some of these demonstrations took place in New Zealand. Some took part to protest what had happened in the US. Others took part to protest racism in New Zealand. And I don’t doubt that racial prejudice has existed, and indeed still exists, in New Zealand.
That racism has been of many kinds. When New Zealanders think of racism today, they have become conditioned to look for the racism of white New Zealanders against Maori New Zealanders. And of course there has been plenty of that.
But there have also been high-profile examples of other kinds of racism – as when Hone Harawira announced a few years ago that he would not want his daughter marrying a white New Zealander. And further back in our history, New Zealand has a disgraceful record of racism against Chinese.
Today, in reaction to the racism towards those with a Maori ancestor we’re seeing the pendulum swing to a dangerous extent in the opposite direction.
In recent weeks, we saw the Police initially turn a blind eye to the roadblocks which iwi set up in many parts of the country – some 20 in all – ostensibly to protect Maori families from Covid-19, despite the Prime Minister making it quite explicitly clear that she did not want members of the public taking the law into their own hands. And despite having this inconsistency drawn to her attention on numerous occasions, she refused to do anything about it.
We’ve seen reports that a number of District Health Boards are considering giving priority to Maori and Pacifika people needing healthcare simply because of their ethnicity.
The changes to the Resource Management Act which the Government is proposing in order to accelerate the decision-making process envisage three-person committees, chaired by an Environment Court judge with only two other people – one representing the local council and the other representing the local tribe.
The changes to the legislation under which our schools are governed will require school boards to give special emphasis to all things Maori, including providing tuition in the Maori language wherever feasible, even though the Maori language has no practical value to the great majority of New Zealanders (including Maori New Zealanders).
The Marine and Coastal Area Act, passed by the National-Maori Party Government in 2011, enables Maori groups to lay claim to parts of the coast which they have used “exclusively and continuously since 1840”. But since almost no part of the coast has been used “exclusively and continuously since 1840”, taxpayers are funding the legal costs of Maori tribes to sort out their conflicting claims, and Government has warned the public that it may take two or three decades to sort out these claims.
In recent years, the Treaty of Waitangi has been grossly misinterpreted by the Waitangi Tribunal and others. The Treaty originally held out the promise of equality under the law for all New Zealanders. But in echoes of George Orwell’s “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”, Maori academics now say that what the Treaty really said was that there was to be a “partnership” between Maori New Zealanders and the Crown, giving Maori New Zealanders equal status to all other New Zealanders combined. This absurd interpretation enabled Kelvin Davis, the Minister for Crown-Maori Relations, to say with a straight face that some Maori had expressed concern to him that the Government was taking decisions without Maori consent.
In the last few weeks, we’ve had some Maori demand the removal of statues of people like James Cook, and city councils meekly acquiesce to their demands. The extraordinary thing is that Cook was one of the greatest explorers of all time. Yes, a small number of Maori were killed when they threatened Cook’s men, something recorded with obvious regret in Cook’s diary. But he was in no sense a murderous man. And while yes, Cook’s arrival could be said to be the beginning of European settlement in New Zealand, it is awfully hard for an objective observer to accept that the arrival of European civilization in New Zealand – bringing metal tools and the wheel, and an end to slavery and cannibalism – was detrimental to most Maori.
Moreover, if we are to start judging historical figures by the standards of today, what are we to make of Te Rauparaha, a man honoured by several statues around the country and by a major sports arena in Porirua: Te Rauparaha is known to have slaughtered hundreds, many personally, both Maori and European. Long before any statue of Cook is removed, any vestige of Te Rauparaha should disappear.
It’s also disturbing that we have come to accept behaviour by Maori that would be totally unacceptable on the part of other New Zealanders. Recently the Hamilton City Council removed a statue of John Hamilton from the city centre because a local Maori announced that he was going to destroy it. The person who made the threat was shown announcing his intention on live television, but there was no suggestion that the Police were planning to take action against him.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen the Executive Director of the Maori Council describe Members of Parliament as “baboons”, and a European woman with whom he disagreed as a “hag” and a “crow”. If I were to use language of that kind about members of the Maori Council, or a prominent Maori woman, he would be the first to denounce me and I have no doubt that the Race Relations Commissioner would caution me.
“Yes, there is racism in New Zealand, and we should all be working hard to eliminate it. But it is quite wrong to assume that racism is peculiar to white New Zealanders.”