Dismantling racism requires much more than empathy, it requires political justice, writes Tina Ngata.
Racism is an economic project. The idea that one group has a right to claim domination over another — based on supremacy of genes, skin colour, ethnicity or similar characteristics — was never a mere intellectual exercise. From the very beginning, it’s been about the extraction of labour, resources and land from non-white people.
Racism existed to justify the taking of land, resources and people. It was the racist belief of the right to dominate that underpinned the establishment of colonial governments, which were necessary to protect ill-gotten privilege and to maintain ownership of what was stolen.
In 1944-45, these same governments established the Bretton-Woods system, which today consists of the International Monetary Fund, the International Finance Corporation, the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.
The governments and their system have done their job very effectively. With few exceptions, wealth has largely been retained by European nations and the countries they colonised, where the wealth is largely held by European settlers.
It’s these economic underpinnings of racism, combined with the fact that most nations are now run through a form of “market democracy” dominated by economic interests, that makes racism very difficult to effectively unpick. The nations and ethnicities which stand to materially lose the most from an anti-racist future, are those that hold the bulk of power to effect that change.
In Aotearoa, the settler government that was established to grab power over land and resources has protected its privilege by writing laws about how we’ll be governed, how we’ll interact with the global economy, and how land, and more recently water, will be managed, developed, exploited and transferred.
It is the laws over our land — over the resources and minerals held in the belly of that land, over waters that nourish and surround our land, and over the seabed beneath those waters — which prop up the New Zealand economy. They therefore primarily prop up those who benefit the most from the New Zealand economy.
It’s a well-established argument that the legislation which suppressed and replaced tikanga Māori, in the areas of justice, welfare, health and education, functions to “contain” us so that the colonial exploitation of our lands and waters can continue with minimal interference.
The decimation of Māori land ownership is directly related to the very low proportion of Māori living in our own homes on our own whenua. This is in turn related to Māori dominating the statistics in housing-related illness.
What this means is that “fixing Māori health” (or indeed most other issues relating to Māori) requires economic and political justice, particularly over Māori land. Tiriti justice can’t happen in silos. It must take place from the very top, and it must be across all of government. Which is a problem, because we are, in effect, waiting for the fox to voluntarily give the henhouse back.
So the implications of a political-economic system built on colonial racism are multiple, and they all require action.
When market democracy and corporate interests rule over planetary and Indigenous rights, we need to re-envision a new approach to politics that centres Te Tiriti and doesn’t see-saw advancements every three or six years because of a change in government.
When we see colonial empathy run out well before material sacrifice or political reform happens, we must prioritise anti-racist training and Indigenous critical analysis so that we can identify and shut down the colonial rhetoric that’s used to evade these bottom lines.
When colonial racism against Indigenous peoples is the last form of racism to be addressed, we must be uncompromising on the standards of economic justice we seek — including land back, reparation, economic reform, and restorative investment. These are the basic standards of anti-racist progress, and we should highlight every instance where these standards are failed.
Remember that colonial governments have in-built blinders towards their own white supremacy. That means they are ineffective at protecting Indigenous defenders from white supremacist violence.
So, as much as we like to tell governments and white people that racism is theirs to solve, we can’t leave it up to them. They’re inclined not to see it, or they’re unable to see it. Even when they do see it, they’ve normalised it and aren’t inclined to do anything about it.
We have to get involved. This means we must also carry out urgent work to identify how systems of white supremacy have infiltrated our own minds, and shaped our own assumptions about ourselves, and other racialised groups in society.
Colonial racism will rely on its global colonial allies and system to prop itself up. We must continue to challenge transnational institutions through our own Indigenous and global alliances.
What makes all this so difficult is that those in power are so accustomed to extreme privilege that anything less than maintaining that feels like oppression.
It’s entirely unsurprising that the “Stop Co-governance” roadshow is driven by an old, white, male evangelist with a property dispute, who has decided to reframe Tiriti justice progress as a “Māori takeover”.
While white fragility may present itself as the inability to withstand even the slightest discomfort, we must always remember that white feelings are protected by systems of white might that are anything but fragile. Were it not for the power of white systems, such roadshows could be dismissed for the absurdity that they are. As things stand, the roadshow operates with the protection of the state and all of its own racist blindspots, enabling and emboldening anti-Māori hate around the country.
Here’s the irony though. While we hear time and time again from the government that “co-governance is nothing to be afraid of”, it also refuses to acknowledge that the current proposals of “co-governance” fall well short of Tiriti justice. Those in power lack the courage to step into the overdue discussion of a Tiriti-centered constitution for Aotearoa
Noam Chomsky once said: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
That’s exactly what we’re seeing happen with political reform in Aotearoa. The debate of “to co-govern or not co-govern” is eclipsing the point that co-governance is not necessarily a Tiriti standard.
As the Crown’s own appointed judicial body on the matter has concluded, Māori never ceded sovereignty. Rather, we agreed, in 1840, to allow for a governor to maintain control over settlers. The governor’s power did not extend to land rights, and it did not extend to ultimate, nor even shared, political authority, even with guaranteed Māori influence within that ultimate authority.
It’s important to note that in 1868, colonial politicians also thought themselves progressive in allowing for four Māori seats in parliament — that was about one representative per 12,000 Māori, even as Pākehā had one representative per 3,500. Back then, per-capita equality would have looked like 16 Māori seats in parliament.
Tiriti justice would have been our right to retain our own political systems for Māori and not be swallowed up by a Westminster parliamentary system. So you see, Pākehā ideas of progressiveness have always fallen short of Tiriti justice. In the colonial mind, Māori rights have always existed within the parameters of “deny” or “restrict”.
What was envisioned in the signing was that Māori would retain ultimate authority over our lands, waters, people and treasured matters — including our cultural expressions and language.
If you read (as everyone should) Matike Mai Aotearoa, the blueprint for constitutional reform, the authors recognise that there are some areas where Māori can convene with the Crown to navigate shared interests — but that is a far cry from the models of “co-governance” currently being promoted.
While many, including the authors of Matike Mai, have pinned their hopes on the date of 2040 for realising this political reform, I fear we don’t have that much time up our sleeve. Here and overseas, we’re seeing supremacist violence gather speed and support in both online and offline spaces.
There are ramped-up threats, harassment, and fear-based propaganda towards Indigenous rights defenders, which has crossed over into real-life harassment and violence. There is more sophisticated co-option of our terms and concepts that limits the parameters of the debate. By absorbing some of our words and ideas, calls for deeper, more profound justice are deflected and made to appear unreasonable.
We are unravelling as a society, at a critical time in our history when we most need to come together for the future of our planet and humankind.
The toxicity of colonial political systems which exist in symbiosis with hateful media to maintain racist economies, are playing out in front of us with severe consequences for wāhine Māori politicians in particular.
It’s imperative in Aotearoa that we educate ourselves broadly on anti-racism and Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and reject the racist and fear-based rhetoric surrounding Tiriti justice.
It’s imperative that we familiarise ourselves with Matike Mai Aotearoa and embrace the promise that political reform will bring our nation. Not in 2040, not in 2030, but now.
This is an edited version of a piece first published on Tina’s blog.
Tina Ngata (Ngāti Porou) is a researcher and scholar, and the author of Kia Mau: Resisting Colonial Fictions. Her work involves advocacy for environmental, Indigenous and human rights. This includes local, national and international initiatives that highlight the role of settler colonialism in issues such as climate change and waste pollution, and which promote Indigenous conservation as best practice for a globally sustainable future.
Made possible with the help of the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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