Garrick Cooper: Social scientists are too quick to deny racism

A social scientist says New Zealand's consistent and widely disparate arrest, conviction and imprisonment statistics cannot be explained away by invoking the concept of a class bias alone. Photo / File
A social scientist says New Zealand's consistent and widely disparate arrest, conviction and imprisonment statistics cannot be explained away by invoking the concept of a class bias alone. Photo / File

Politicians make statements they do not have to back up. I am not talking of Trump-esque politicians, but affable politicians like John Key, who recently said "violence is unacceptable anywhere".

His claim is incorrect, violence is accepted under certain conditions, the obvious example being war. One might say Key wasn't talking about violence "anywhere" but specifically violence perpetrated in our local communities. We could also say that even in war violence is unacceptable, but it is a necessary evil, therefore is not really an evil. We have ways of rationalising away the otherwise morally unacceptable.

Academics and experts are not immune to similar claims. However, we can challenge what academics assert and question their reasoning and the evidential basis of their claims.

While our judicial system was being questioned in the media recently about the possibility of a racial bias, socially progressive academics came out strongly in its defence.

Perhaps not quite as unequivocal as Key, they nevertheless dismissed claims that the justice system is racially biased and decided there is definitely a class bias.

Two things stand out. First, social scientists cannot dismiss outright the claim that the justice system is racially biased. Politicians can, and do; social scientists cannot because there simply are no systematic studies in this country that address the question.

They could say that we have no evidence to prove it doesn't exist. That there is no such study is telling in itself.

Secondly, there appears to be a significant investment in maintaining the line that a racial bias does not exist. Why is there such a uniform, consistent narrative, without an evidential basis, from mostly white, experts?

You get a similar response from socially progressive academics in education. They will say there is no racial bias in the education system but there is a class bias.

If you push them they might say we don't have evidence that racism does not exist. This is actually the point. There are constant claims of no racial bias but no evidence to support their assertions.

Class does not explain higher Māori rates of apprehension by the police. Nor higher Māori charge, conviction and imprisonment rates. These consistent statistics cannot be explained away by invoking class alone.

To ignore racism is to demonstrate an historical amnesia, and a blindness to the ongoing legacies of colonialism, the premise of which is white racial superiority; that is, racism.

Māori children learn from a young age that they are watched in shops because they are Māori, not because they may not have rich parents. My physically imposing son, blessed with more melanin than most, has repeatedly been stopped by police while legally driving his car. This is not an anomaly. Class doesn't have explanatory power, as the social scientists like to say, for these experiences. It can't explain them.

Jarrod Gilbert in his column last week was more measured. Despite Don Brash's claim that Gilbert argued there was no racial bias, in fact Gilbert pointed out the Independent Police Conduct Authority report wasn't evidence of racism, not that racism did not exist.

However, in arguing for a maintained focus on poverty and addressing the conditions in which crime flourishes - one that I do not necessarily disagree with - Gilbert ignores the very real possibility that accumulatively the data, reviews and audits at the very least suggest Māori are being overpoliced and criminalised. Reducing poverty will not solve Māori criminalisation.

Why is there such an investment in denying the existence of racism? Why does it have to be mutually exclusive, why can it not be both class and race?

Are we really being asked to believe New Zealand is immune to a social disease that infects most other western societies? Have we figured out what all these other countries cannot?

I know that is the story we like to tell ourselves about our so-called "harmonious race relations". However just because we don't have anywhere near the same level of tragic deaths at the hands of our police like the United States, this is not evidence that racism doesn't exist here.

Let me suggest the reason no research has been commissioned into systemic racism and why there is such an investment in the "harmonious race relations" line, is because we have an unencumbered faith in our own goodness, and no amount of statistics or, dare I say, reality, is going to derail that.

Garrick Cooper, (Ngāti Karaua, Te Pirirākau), is a lecturer in the University of Canterbury's Aotahi: School of Maori and Indigenous Studies.

- NZ Herald

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