Karamia Müller: 'There is no other way to say it'

Opinion: Dr Karamia Müller says when you decide that lives are not negotiable, questions that appear difficult have simple and clear answers.

Dr Karamia Müller
Dr Karamia Müller: 'What are we doing about the avoidable death of minorities?'

2020 is asking everyone: What is a life worth?

The answers given have had real consequences, and those consequences have not been experienced evenly. The Covid-19 pandemic and the new energy of a global Black Lives Matter movement is proving that there are answers, and there is action, and Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) peoples and communities must have both.

Covid-19 came first. The political leadership in the UK, US and elsewhere answered: public health must be weighted against economic health. The costs of “the cure could not do more harm than the disease”. A strawman answer made by people removed through race, disability, gender, class and sexuality from the sharp points of the question. As we have seen, that answer has let thousands die.

There is no other way to say it.

New Zealand, in contrast, went into a state of emergency early. We were asked to stay home. We were told it would be enforced if necessary. Like everyone, I was confined to a smaller world. As I hung washing in a city quiet except for the sound of birds, I reflected on how our country’s leadership answered the question. You can’t put a price on a life, and even if you did, you, me, we, “the team” couldn’t afford it.

Once you decide that lives are not negotiable, questions that appear difficult – like whether to herd immunity or not to herd immunity – have simple and clear answers. Rapidly adopting different professional and social arrangements presented some challenges to all of us, again experienced unevenly by our most vulnerable. I appreciated, and still do, the values that led to those actions. We, “the team”, collectively made sacrifices to save the lives of people we didn’t know, knowing others were doing the same to save our lives, and the lives of those we love.

Beyond New Zealand’s shores, Covid-19 continues to spread, keeping much of the world in a state of anxiety, uncertainty and collective grief. The curves charting the course of the pandemic are heart-breaking, overwhelming, paralysing. For those governments who chose to balance human costs with economic costs: how many people must die, and how much money is saved in their deaths for those who live?

As Black Lives Matter protests broke out in the US and across the world, we are being asked: how much are minority and racialised lives worth? The answer has been: not enough to justify policing reforms, or even state considerations of how to meaningfully acknowledge and address systemic racism.

The list of Black deaths is heart-breaking, overwhelming, paralysing. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have been recently added to the too-long list of avoidable, preventable Black deaths. Rayshard Brooks, lost too, in the same space of time it took to draft this opinion. No one should lose their life at the hands of another so quickly. Even more vulnerable are Black trans people, as seen in the deaths of Tony McDade, Riah Milton and Dominique Rem’mie Fells. The US state response has been consistent with their handling of Covid-19: the lives of minorities are not worth the cost to save them.

There is no other way to say it.

If we care about flattening curves to save lives, there are other curves for us to look at. 

Dr Karamia Müller, School of Architecture and Planning University of Auckland

The Black Lives Matter protests resonate with Māori, Pacific and BIPOC communities, also systemically discriminated against, resulting in hundreds of years of avoidable, preventable death.

We can acknowledge this while also honouring the lethal risks posed to police, seen in the needless death of Constable Matthew Hunt. In mapping the Government’s strategy for Covid-19, our Prime Minister told us that a life is worth any price, and we saw what the state can do when the burden of avoidable mortality is shared by Pākehā. You, me, we, “the team”, would shut down the whole country if that was what we had to do to save lives. So, what are we doing about the avoidable death of minorities?

If we care about flattening curves to save lives, there are other curves for us to look at. In healthcare, 53 percent of Māori and 47 percent of all Pacific deaths are attributed to potentially avoidable causes of death, compared with 23 percent in non-Māori/non-Pacific. The New Zealand Department of Corrections’ most recent statistics reveal that Māori men represent 53 percent of incarcerated men, while Māori women represent 60 percent of incarcerated women. One in every 142 Māori is incarcerated, compared to 1 in 808 non-Māori. The pathway to imprisonment is paved with systemic bias.

As of 2017, for low-level crime, 7 percent of Māori convicted went to prison, compared with 2 percent of Pākehā. A study published by Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath in the New Zealand Medical Journal indicates that from 1996 to 2013, 22 Pacific lives on average are lost to suicide each year. Suicide rates for Māori men are double that of non-Māori. Māori are also over-represented in homelessness, a legacy of mass land confiscations.

Black Lives Matter protests are occurring here because we have seen how far the state will go to save lives, just not for Māori, Pacific and BIPOC groups. The current Government understands that lives are priceless but without systemic change, minority peoples keep paying for the lives of others with their own – this is racism and white supremacy – even if not everyone involved is consciously aware they are participating and therefore upholding it.

There is no other way to say it.

We must have sustained transformational reforms across education, healthcare, housing and the justice system. Merely increasing funding in these sectors will not accomplish the systemic shifts required to address long-enduring racialised bias. State agencies and public institutions must commit to Māori and Pacific-centred engagement and meaningful partnerships at every level, and BIPOC representation in every strata of decision making. We must also do better across axes of disability, gender, class and sexuality.

What does this look like? The answer is simple, but likely uncomfortable for many, especially Pākehā. If the boardroom, committee or meeting is majority Pākehā, then there is not just a diversity issue, there is a diversity state of emergency. We are all responsible for bringing urgent attention to these imbalances. New Zealand established itself as a leader in its response to Covid-19, answering clearly with life-saving values. I am hopeful we can do so again with systemic racism to save more lives. If we can shut down the country to save lives from Covid-19, what can we, me, you, “the team” do to save lives from systemic racism?

There are answers, and there is action, and we must have both.

There is no other way to say it.

Dr Karamia Müller is a lecturer at the School of Architecture and Planning. Her research focuses on the meaningful ‘indigenisation’ of design methodologies invested in building futures resistant to inequality.

See violentlegalities.space online, Karamia's project showing now at Adam Art Gallery, Wellington.

This article reflects personal opinion and is not necessarily that of the University of Auckland. It first appeared in the July 2020 edition of UniNews magazine.