ONE OF THE MOST DISTURBING ASPECTS of race-based politics is the difficulty many citizens have in taking racially-driven change seriously. This is particularly the case when the manner in which racial matters have been defined and discussed changes abruptly. Assumptions upon which people have come to rely are deemed mistaken, even dangerous, and they are required to embrace a whole new set of assumptions.
Unsurprisingly, the ethnic groups targeted by these new assumptions will be profoundly affected by such dramatic shifts in moral and political judgement. If it is an ethnic minority being singled-out, then many of its members will become fearful. But, if the assumptions of the majority are being challenged, then many of its members will become extremely angry. Most citizens, however, will struggle to take such shifts seriously. Those making them will be branded extremists, and dismissed accordingly.
For many Jews living in Germany at the time of the Nazi’s seizure of power in the early months of 1933, the idea that their entire ethnic community was about to be threatened by actions infinitely more serious than the familiar antisemitic attacks of Adolf Hitler and his followers seemed preposterous. Germans were, after all, a highly civilised people, and their rulers, beginning in the Eighteenth Century, had been among the first to recognise Jews as citizens. The idea that they could be stripped of their citizenship, excluded from all aspects of social and economic life, robbed of their property and, ultimately their very lives, and all under the lawful direction of the state, was bizarre, unbelievable, obscene. They were right, of course, it was all of those things, but that didn’t make it untrue.
Whites living in the southern states of the United States found it equally preposterous that their “separate but equal” racial regime was about to be dismantled by the federal courts and the United States Congress. White supremacy, legitimated through the states’ racial segregation statutes, and enforced by the terror inspired by the Ku Klux Klan, constituted the “normal” state of affairs in the South, and most Southerners could not take seriously the idea of any other system muscling-in on the “Jim Crow” status quo. But, muscle-in it did. Not all that quickly, and not without horrific violence being visited upon the Black civil rights movement and its leaders, but in the end Southern Whites were forced to acknowledge (if not entirely accept) a new set of racial assumptions.
The role of the federal courts, the Supreme Court in particular, in defining and imposing that new set of assumptions, and of the US Congress in translating them into effective legislation, should not be underestimated. A different Supreme Court, and a differently composed Congress, could very easily have turned back the Civil Rights Movements’ legal and political challenges – as had happened many times before. A less progressive news media might have declined to stir the conscience of northern liberals by suppressing the images of Bull Connor’s fire-hoses and Alsatian dogs.
As the recent judgements of the US Supreme Court have demonstrated, the progressive assumptions that brought down Jim Crow and ushered in a host of related social freedoms, were the products of a particular historical moment. When the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in 1954, the global struggle against the fanatical racism of the Nazis was less than a decade in the past. In 2022, however, the proposition that the liberal victories of the late-Twentieth and early-Twenty-First centuries will stand unchallenged and unchanged forever has clearly been disproved. The hands of History’s clock can move backwards as well as forwards.
The evolution of racial politics in New Zealand has arrived at its own moment of radically altered assumptions. The notion that the colonial state, and the institutions it bequeathed to the nation of New Zealand, are insulated from serious challenge, both by the passage of historical time, and the shared beliefs and values of Māori and Pakeha, is itself being challenged.
An elite coalition of Māori nationalists, backed by sympathetic Pakeha intellectuals located strategically in New Zealand’s judicial, state, academic and media apparatus, has launched an ambitious attempt to “decolonise” the thinking of its Pakeha population, and “indigenise” the cultural, educational, administrative, and economic institutions of “Aotearoa”. This revolutionary constitutional reconfiguration, like the deconstruction of Jim Crow in the American South, is to be carried out with the consent of the white population, if possible; or without it, if necessary.
The key question raised by this strategy is whether or not enough New Zealanders can be convinced of the need for revolutionary constitutional change to overwhelm – either democratically or physically – the objections of those determined to preserve the status quo.
That this is the crucial determinant of New Zealand’s future will not, however, become clear until New Zealanders recognise the prospect of revolutionary change as a serious possibility. At the moment most of the New Zealand population continues to work on the assumption that Māori and Pakeha see each other as equals not adversaries. If they think about co-governance at all, they assume that it is simply a matter of giving Māori a stronger voice in matters that matter to them. Very few Pakeha appreciate that being “decolonised” and “indigenised” is something that will be done to them, in order to change them. When they finally work that out, things could get ugly.
In large measure, the final triumph of the Black Civil Rights Movement was the work of its enemies. The violence inflicted on non-violent protesters. The bombing and burning of churches. The murder of civil rights workers. These were the bloody talismans of segregation and white supremacy that allowed President Lyndon Johnson to assemble his congressional majority for the Voting Rights Act. Dr Martin Luther King understood that only by forcing white racism to reveal itself, could the moral indignation necessary to supplant it be kindled.
A race-driven revolution in New Zealand will succeed only if those promoting it are committed, and seen to be committed, to building a future in which what you are is of less importance that who you are. In Nazi Germany and the American South, what you were, Jew or Aryan, White or Black, was all that mattered. If New Zealand is a nation in which the assumptions of racial equality still hold sway, then any attempt to privilege the ethnic origins of its citizens over their common humanity must end in failure. If, however, a decisive majority of New Zealanders reject racial equality, then the serious consequences of the revolutionary, race-based constitution that is sure to follow will not be slow in manifesting themselves.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 20 December 2022.