Is Melissa a Racist?

30 May 2009

When the National Party list Member of Parliament Melissa Lee blurted that the State Highway 20 motorway would stop “criminals from South Auckland” targeting homes in Mount Albert, she was making a claim that was at best contentious, and at worst silly.

But was it racist?  Not on the face of it.  She specified “criminals from south Auckland” as being the problem, and not any particular racial groups.   The inference has been drawn that Melissa must have had Polynesian or Maori criminals in mind.   Perhaps she did.   But what she actually said was not overtly racist.  It does not compare, for example, with the remark by National Party  Prime Minister Jenny Shipley about "Polynesians.. climbing in other peoples windows at night".

So why were so many so quick to conclude that her remarks were indeed racist?   The reason is that New Zealanders are very sensitive to issues of race.   And they are sensitive to race matters because their society, and their political system, is explicitly structured along race lines.   They know that a race-based society can survive and even thrive while its members make no overt display of racial prejudice or intolerance, but they also know that to allow any public expression of racist sentiment is like allowing a match to be put to the powder keg.

The constitution of New Zealand is benignly racist.   It specifies that the head of state must be British.   The political system itself is also British.  Maori are recognised as a separate ethnic group, and accorded a protected status under the Treaty of Waitangi.   In recent times other ethnic groups have been informally incorporated into this system through the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs and the state-sanctioned principles of ethnic and cultural “diversity”.

This system has worked fairly well from about 1880 through to the present.   Melissa Lee herself is a prime example of how the system has adapted to incorporate Asian ethnic groups into the essentially bi-racial political constitution of New Zealand.   Her business career as a television producer is dependent on funds which are provided by the state to advance the cause of ethnic and cultural diversity.   Her political career is founded on the willingness of essentially British mainstream political parties to nominate representatives of other ethnic groups to parliamentary seats in order to secure the electoral support of significant ethnic minorities.

So far so good.   But the system is fraught with danger.   In fact it is only by a combination of luck and circumstance that it has managed to survive this long.   A quick look at history shows that the same system which Britain employed in order to create the state institutions of New Zealand was followed, with certain modifications, throughout the British empire.   The common feature of the British imperial system was the mass movement, or migration, of different ethnic groups within the boundaries of the empire.   The first such movement was the “plantation” of Scottish Protestants into Catholic Ireland, quickly followed by the movement of Africans to America and the Caribbean, Catholic Irish to Australia, Indian Tamils to Sri Lanka, Hong Kong Chinese to Malaya, English agriculturalists to New Zealand, Gujarati Indians to Fiji and Uganda, and, in the final chapter,  Jews to British occupied Palestine.

Every one of these mass migrations was made in the interests of imperial commerce and military hegemony.    Africans in America supplied sugar and cotton, Irish in Australia supplied gold, wheat, meat and wool, Tamils in Sri Lanka supplied tea and spices, Indians in Fiji supplied sugar, Chinese in Malaya supplied rubber and tin, and English settlers in New Zealand supplied timber, gold, butter and wool.

The contrived “ethnic diversity” of the empire was a commercial and military success, but it also had a down side.  It led to bitter racial conflicts which have taken centuries to resolve in most cases, and which in other cases remain completely unresolved.   The conflict between Protestant Scots and Catholic Irish has festered for four centuries.   In America there has been two centuries of struggle between the descendants of English settlers and African slaves.   British and Malay troops fought a bitter war with the descendants of Chinese labourers during the Malayan “emergency” and Sri Lankans and Tamils have just concluded the last bloody round of a race war that has run for nearly three decades.   In Fiji the political conflicts between the descendants of Indian indentured labourers and indigenous Fijians have provoked numerous race riots and a succession of military coups.  The ongoing wars between indigenous Palestinians and Jewish settlers have cost hundreds of thousands their lives, and  have destabilized the entire middle eastern region for half a century.

New Zealand has, by comparison, survived the British imperial system with a minimum of race conflict.  There were a number of short, sharp and bloody race wars between Maori and English in the years 1840-1873, but these have been largely patched over in the last century.   The race system seems to have worked for New Zealand, and so New Zealand has continued to employ and extend that system.    There have been more mass migrations of new ethnic groups in order to promote and assist imperial, or as it is now termed, “global” commerce, starting with the Pacific Islands people, and moving on to Fiji Indians, South Africans, Taiwanese, Chinese and Koreans.   The new ethnic groups have been incorporated into the political system, as evidenced in the arrival of List Members of Parliament like Melissa Lee (Korean), Pansy Wong (Chinese), Ashraf Choudhary (Pakistani Indian), and Kanwaljit Bakshi (Sikh Indian).

In fact the race system has performed so well in New Zealand that it is becoming more pronounced with every electoral cycle.    Maori, formerly in close political alliance with the European working class, are now largely represented by an explicitly Maori Party.   In violation of their own religious tenets, New Zealand Muslims have allowed themselves to be re-defined as an "ethnic minority" to fit within the race-based political system, and while race-based parties are not yet a viable option for Asian or Polynesian ethnic minorities,  a Chinese Party is not inconceivable.  At the moment, all these changes (and the lack of change) in the political system appear benign.   To the regime, they are evidence of the system working as it should.

But there are fatal flaws.   A race-based system only provides for stable government and an orderly society so long as it is not subject to serious external or economic stresses.   If, or when, conditions deteriorate, competition for political power and economic resources can unleash previously suppressed racial antagonisms.   That helps to explain why New Zealanders are so quick to seize on, and condemn, any possible suggestion of racism, as in the case of Melissa Lee.   They know that their whole political system is race based.  They intuitively know that in the right (or wrong) socio-economic circumstances the expression of  racist sentiments can quickly inspire race conflict.   And they don’t want that to happen.

But New Zealand’s current state of racial tolerance is merely fortuitous.  It  is an exception to the rule in the nations of the former British empire, and it is partly at odds with the country’s early history.   The present system, set up and maintained for reasons of imperial commerce and military hegemony, does not provide a viable and sustainable basis for New Zealand society.   Even where the system appears to be working as it should - as in the elevation of people like Ashraf Choudhary, Melissa Lee and Kanwaljit Bakshi to parliamentary office - the success is illusory.   These devices to enrol ethnic minority support for the system, only possible under the system of proportional representation, have created a climate in which ethnic parliamentarians exploit the state financially, while the state exploits the ethnic representatives politically.  The system was pioneered by New Zealand's most consumate political opportunist, Peter Dunne of the United Future Party, who established a short-lived parliamentary fiefdom by composing an electoral list consisting of members of various ethnic minorities.   Dunne's party eventually failed because his opportunism was too obvious and blatant to be palatable to the electorate at large.   But even when conducted with a modicum of decency, the manner in which ethnic minorities are used to bolster the list vote of the major parties still smacks of opportunism.   This is not the fault of the individual candidates concerned, even given that some among them are of dubious moral standing.  Rather, this scandal of mutual exploitation is the fault of a morally reprehensible socio-economic and political system.

It is silly to accuse a politician like Melissa Lee of "racism" when the whole political system is race-based.   Lee has assimilated into a benignly racist society constructed on the British imperial model.  She has seen how the system works, and has adopted its principles to her own advantage.  Some of us may not like that.   Some of us may think that there must be a better way.  And there is a better way.  One which is predicated on a complete break with the racist, class-ridden and exploitative system established under British imperial rule.


Race Problem? What race problem?

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