New Zealand: A nation grappling with its racist past

Opinion: A country can best heal when it acknowledges past injustices, and New Zealand is no exception, writes Robert Bartholomew.

New Zealand is a land where people openly boast of having the best race relations in the world with their Indigenous inhabitants, the Māori. Over the past century, this myth has been reaffirmed by the country’s politicians and taught in its history books.

But the statistics tell a different story. Māori continue to trail the European population in every major social indicator. Māori men and women die several years younger than their non-Māori counterparts, have higher rates of illness, infection, and psychiatric disorders, have significantly higher mortality rates for stroke, heart disease, and cancer, and are two times more likely than non-Māori to forego collecting a prescription due to the cost. On average, Māori income is lower, employment is mostly in low-paying primary and semi-skilled jobs, and housing quality is poorer. Māori students are more likely to be suspended from school or expelled, increasing the prospect of juvenile criminality.

One reason for their plight is the sentiment that Māori are to blame for their own problems, and if they just worked harder, they could lift themselves up from the social and economic mire. Psychologists call this "blaming the victim."

Victims of rape and sexual assault are still impugned for what they were wearing as if their clothing choice was responsible for the assault. Those in poverty are often chastised for being lazy and lacking initiative when a myriad of other factors are involved. One factor in Māori impoverishment today can be traced to the 19th century when many had their land confiscated by the government.  

The Psychology of Blame

In the 1960s, psychologist Melvin Lerner came up with the "just-world effect" where people rationalise the misfortune of others, often concluding that they get what they deserve. For instance, if someone’s house is destroyed in a tornado, it is more comforting to think that it was partially their fault for buying a house where tornadoes occur. Ditto for floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes. The just-world effect can give us a sense of control by affirming the belief that bad things do not happen to good people — or at least less often, because it could also happen to us some day.

Another psychological process at work is the tendency for people to interpret information that supports pre-existing stereotypes. This is known as "confirmation bias." These processes can blind people to the everyday obstacles faced by Māori. This is important because Māori iwi (tribes) are trying to settle long-disputed land claims that will place them in a better position to break the shackles wrought by two centuries of policies that have kept them from achieving their true potential. Many citizens view these settlements as "land grabs" or attempts to get something for nothing. The problem is, without popular support, the political will to get these settlements done, is wavering. The greater the public support, the more likely these much-needed settlements will be approved and settled equitably.  

A dose of reality

Those who question the need for settlements, scholarships, and university entrance quotas or do not think Māori have had it bad in recent times, should look no further than the racial segregation that took place in the South Auckland town of Pukekohe from 1925 to the early 1960s. Travel there as I did and start asking around and you will find your answer. The topic is a forbidden history; a taboo subject that makes many residents uncomfortable and defensive. As a result, few details of what happened there are widely known — and underscore the need to redress past wrongs.

During the segregation era in Pukekohe:

  • Māori were forced to sit in designated sections of the cinema so as not to offend European patrons.
  • Barbers refused to cut their hair; one even had a "Māori-only chair" to allay customer fears of catching a disease.
  • Most bars refused to serve them alcohol; one served female Māori in a nearby field.
  • Māori were only allowed to use the school swimming baths on Fridays, after which the dirty water was changed.
  • Businesses refused to let Māori use their public toilets.
  • Māori were denied taxi rides and forced to stand for white bus passengers.
  • Between 1952 and 1964, the country’s only racially segregated school was opened there after European parents complained that their kids had to sit next to Māori in class.
  • No one in town would rent to Māori so they were forced to live in slums on the edge of town in shelters that often consisted of stacked benzine cans, burlap sacks, and converted manure sheds, with no running water or toilets. As a result, hundreds of Māori infants and children died of preventable diseases linked to their housing.  

It is important for New Zealanders to know the story of Pukekohe. It is a poignant reminder of the obstacles faced by Māori.  

What would happen if you lost your land and ended up as a second-class citizen in your own country? How come most Kiwis have never heard of Pukekohe? Why isn’t the story taught in Kiwi schools? I believe it is because it eases people's conscience by blaming the victim and confirming popular Māori stereotypes. Victim blaming, the just cause effect, and confirmation bias can provide insights into what is happening.

The true test of a civilised country is its willingness to acknowledge past wrongs. The best time to address them is now. Confronting injustice and acknowledging past wrongs is part of the process of healing for the country. It is time to break the taboo and have a national discussion about race. In the light of recent global events surrounding the death of George Floyd, the time has never been better.  

Robert Bartholomew is an American medical sociologist and Honorary Academic within the Department of Psychological Medicine, School of Medicine, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Psychology Today, New Zealand: A Nation Grappling with Its Racist Past, 14 June 2020.

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