By Chris Trotter*
Telling people things they don’t want to hear may be interpreted as either an act of bravery, or foolishness. In a world grown extraordinarily sensitive to charges of racism, a government report which states that “family structure and social class had a bigger impact than race on how people’s lives turned out” is bound to create controversy. But, this is exactly what the British Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED) has done, and controversy is exactly what it has got.
In one of those ironies with which history abounds, the Report, commissioned by Boris Johnson’s Conservative Government in the aftermath of the world-wide “Black Lives Matter” protests of 2020, and which highlights the critical role played by social class in generating inequality, has “disappointed” Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the British Labour Party. Starmer’s namesake, Keir Hardie (1856-1915) a pioneer of working-class representation in the British parliament, would have found Starmer’s response ideologically inexplicable.
According to a BBC news report (2/4/21), the CRED Report found evidence that “factors such as geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion had ‘more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism’.”
It is difficult to think of a statement more calculated to upset those for whom white racism – personal and institutional – constitutes the key explanation for the negative experiences and life outcomes of people living in Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. The only information likely to prove more “triggering” is the CRED Report’s finding that, in terms of raw numbers, there are more white families living in poverty in Britain than black families.
Since whites make up the overwhelming majority of UK citizens, this might seem like a trivial finding. The very important issue it raises, however, is the impact of life experiences completely unrelated to race upon the way people’s lives unfold. The closure of a factory, or a coal mine. Extended periods of unemployment. The impact of clinical depression on familial relationships. The consequences of drug and alcohol abuse. All of these are equal opportunity misfortunes: experiences related much more closely to one’s location in the socio-economic power structure than to the colour of one’s skin.
The same socio-economic dynamics are, of course, at work in New Zealand. Indeed, those with good memories will recall a very similar debate which erupted over the “Closing the Gaps” policy promoted, and then abandoned, by the Helen Clark-led coalition governments of 1999-2008. Exactly as has occurred in Britain, the research undertaken in what appeared to be a race issue came back with the unwelcome news that the “gaps” in New Zealand society were generated overwhelmingly by socio-economic factors.
The problem which then confronted Clark and her Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, was that any programme actually capable of closing the gap between working-class and middle-class New Zealanders would be prohibitively expensive. Limiting such a programme to lifting Maori alone out of poverty, however, would inevitably provoke an electorally fatal political backlash from the working-class whites left behind. Unsurprisingly, the controversial programme was quietly shelved.
Over the course of the nearly 20 years that separates “Closing the Gaps” from the promises of the present Labour Government, the power of class-based arguments to influence government policy has declined considerably. Excluding the overwhelmingly middle-class trade unions catering to the health and education sectors and the public service, the trade unions’ purchase on the New Zealand working-class has been reduced to almost nothing. (Today, less than 7 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union.) In the third decade of the twenty-first century, the most powerful ideological currents flowing through New Zealand society are those relating to race and gender. Among professional policy advisers and analysts “class” has become a dirty word.
Benefitting hugely from the rise and rise of “Identity Politics” in New Zealand society have been those Maori families sufficiently well-placed to have benefitted from the professional and managerial opportunities arising out of the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process. The well-credentialed children of this rapidly expanding Maori middle-class are now preparing to have another crack at closing the gaps between Maori and Pakeha.
Before that can happen, however, it is vital that the sort of observations contained in the British CRED Report be rendered practically unsayable in New Zealand. In this regard, the research project entitled Whakatika is certain to prove immensely helpful. Based on more than 2,000 face-to-face interviews, the project details its respondents’ experience of Pakeha racism. Be it the racist “micro-aggressions” perpetrated by individuals; or the “unconscious bias” manifested across virtually all of this country’s “colonial” institutions; Whakatika reports a racism so pervasive that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the maintenance of racial inequality is basic to the preservation of Pakeha identity.
Nearly 80 percent of respondents, for example, considered the portrayal of Maori by the non-Maori media to be negative all of the time or often. Nearly 90 percent reported either experiencing or witnessing discriminatory treatment of Maori in shops. The conclusions drawn by the study’s authors were unequivocal:
“The results of Whakatika show the need for broad anti-racism activities that are based on mana motuhake and that strengthen Māori connections to te taiao, our lands, rivers, mountains and harbours. Similarly, the results indicate that racism and discrimination are so widespread that they will never be conquered through isolated activities, such as unconscious bias training, alone. Addressing racism requires a constant, consistent, Māori-focused multipronged approach.”
Given that the authors’ definition of the problem: “Racism is an attack on our rangatiratanga. It maintains colonial power structures, systematically disadvantaging Maori.”, it is difficult to see the sort of arguments and observations advanced in the CRED Report being presented here without irresistible pressure being brought to bear upon the Labour Government to have them declared wrong, objectionable and unacceptable.
Leading the charge in this respect will be Labour’s Maori caucus. It is large enough now to prevent the party’s Pakeha leaders from replicating the Clark-Cullen duck-shove of twenty years ago. This time, a “Māori-focused multipronged approach”, based upon the rangatiratanga guaranteed by Te Tiriti, will be allowed to proceed – Pakeha working-class, or no Pakeha working-class.
The problem, of course, is that if a great many more factors are at work in the generation of social inequality than one’s ethnic origins, the “Māori-focused multipronged approach” is doomed to fail. If “geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion” all have a role to play in shaping the lives we lead, then any uplift programme which fails to take these factors into account cannot possibly succeed.
If you were to ask a working-class Pakeha if she had ever been looked straight through by a snooty shop assistant falling all over herself to serve the obviously wealthy woman standing behind her, the chances are high that she would say yes. If you were to ask a Pakeha working-class bloke if any middle-class person had ever asked for his opinion on anything other than sport and/or cars, what do you think he would say?
We have spent the last 20 years being made acutely sensitive to the injuries inflicted by racism and sexism. This is a very good thing – no question. Not so good, however, is the fact that, over the same 20 year period, the equally debilitating injuries of class have been ever more thoroughly hidden.
Those in a position to do something about it, don’t want to be told; and there are now far too few advisers who are either brave or foolish enough to tell them.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.