Race-Based Geography: All the old Marxists out there (all seventeen of them!) will object that the bureaucratic discrimination embodied in the new two-tier benefit system is not based on race, but on social class. To say that, though, is to miss the salient fact of the socio-economic changes of the past 35 years. Namely, that the poorest and most marginalised people in our society have become steadily less white.
I’VE OFTEN WONDERED if South African immigrants passing through towns like Kerikeri and Kaikohe ever wonder how we do it. In their homeland, through the bitter years of Apartheid, keeping the races segregated required pass laws, Alsatian dogs, tear gas, rubber bullets and, all-too-often, live rounds. Not here. Not in Godzone. Here, the “brown towns” are readily distinguished by their boarded-up shops, bottle stores and WINZ offices. The “white towns”, by their main streets’ homage to conspicuous consumption: all those funky cafes and swanky boutiques. No Sharpevilles required. No Sowetos. Quite a trick.
They must also scratch their heads at New Zealand’s segregated schools. How were the rolls so effortlessly sorted? In one school (usually in the poorest part of town) the roll will be upwards of 85 percent Maori and Pasifika. In another (ten miles from the first, where the pupils’ warm dry houses are surrounded by mature trees and carefully tended gardens) the roll will be 85 percent Pakeha and Chinese.
In Boston, Massachusetts, it took school-busses and billy-clubs to enforce desegregation. No political party in New Zealand has ever been willing to wear the backlash. And because we lack a supreme court with the power to strike down legislation which violates a written constitution (which we also lack) no one has ever forced them to.
Parliamentary supremacy, coupled with a free-wheeling Executive Branch unburdened by serious judicial restraint, has produced a political system in which racism has not only been institutionalised but also rendered electorally invisible. To argue otherwise is to ignore the evidence of Tuesday’s newspaper headlines – or (at the very least) wilfully misinterpret them.
Monday’s announcement, under the names of Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, and Social Development Minister, Carmel Sepuloni, of what they have dubbed the Covid-19 Income Relief Payment – CIRP (but which would rather more honestly have been called the Middle-Class Pakeha Income Relief Payment) was a shocker. Seldom has a government acknowledged the yawning gulf between the rich and the poor – the white and the brown – with such gobsmacking insouciance. Or, it must be said, with such rock-solid confidence that its blatant policy of racial discrimination will be accepted by the voting public with barely a flicker of concern or guilt.
What is it, after all, that separates a young Maori bartender made redundant on 29 February 2020, from a middle-aged Pakeha marketing manager let go on 25 May? It’s a question with many answers. But after all the superficial demarcators have been acknowledged, the explanation always circles back to one thing: the size of the fuss you can make. The marketing manager from Remuera has the means to make a great deal more fuss than the out-of-work bartender from Mangere. Give a marketing manager a look of withering contempt and he’ll ask to see your supervisor. Give a bartender the same look and he’ll turn away from the counter with a burning knot of rage and shame in his guts.
Oh, and the other thing that separates these two New Zealanders is the fact that the bartender on his Jobseeker Allowance will receive $250 from the taxpayer, while the marketing manager on his CIRP will receive $490.
All the old Marxists out there (all seventeen of them!) will object that this bureaucratic discrimination is not based on race, but on social class. To say that, though, is to miss the salient fact of the socio-economic changes of the past 35 years. Namely, that the poorest and most marginalised people in our society have become steadily less white.
The effectively monocultural social landscape of the 30 years after World War II played a crucial role in preserving the political acceptability of the Welfare State. The more “bi-cultural” and then “multicultural” we became, however, the less redeemable our cradle-to-grave promissory notes became. Social generosity and cultural homogeneity are intimately related. When the majority of blue collars (or should that be Hi-Viz vests?) begin to be worn around brown necks, then the socialist party tends to get cancelled.
This government has decided (very sensibly in a strictly political sense) that it would be electorally counter-productive to have a growing number of middle-class Pakeha New Zealanders discovering exactly how many humiliating hoops working-class Maori, Pasifika and immigrant New Zealanders have to jump through to get their hands on a lousy $250.
Clearly, kindness has its limits.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 May 2020.