I can’t help but laugh when I hear scaremongering about the Māori elite coming to take over the country.
Not even the most ardent of Māori nationalists have that fantasy. It does remind me, however, of the reoccurring worry by some Pākehā that Māori may become more successful in the Pākehā world than they will.
In 1874 my great-great grandfather did so well in his first year at Auckland Grammar that at the school prize-giving Bishop Cowie warned that “the boys of European descent must be careful or they would be outstripped by them [Māori] in the race for knowledge”.
When Māori were successfully graduating lawyers and doctors such as Apirana Ngata and Te Rangi Hiroa from Universities in the early 1900s, an enquiry was held into Te Aute Māori Boys College. The school was teaching the academic subjects Latin, algebra and geometry which were needed to gain entry to university.
As a result of the inquiry they were forced to drop those subjects or have their funding cancelled, instead focusing more on farming and manual subjects. According to the Inspector General of Schools George Hogben, this was to help Māori learn “the dignity of manual labour”. Māori were not to be seen to outcompete the settlers.
At the same time, the settlers were also worried about a potential growing Māori economic strength.
By 1905, Māori had lost more than 58 million acres of the original 66 million in our possession. Of the seven and a half million acres left, three million acres were leased to Pākehā farmers.
The accusation was that a Māori elite would arise, living off the profits of the land rentals and spend all day in idleness playing billiards. This life living off wealth was only intended for the white man and God forbid that Māori should ever prosper under a capitalistic system.
In 1912, the Wanganui Herald wrote: “What does it profit us to have a white lord pulled down to have a coloured half-civilised one elevated in his place?”
An earlier 1905 editorial in the New Zealand Herald said: “We are creating a Māori landed aristocracy in the country, and a class of comparatively poor whites in a state of perpetual tribute to them.”
You see the problem they feared here? It wasn’t so much that Māori would be economically successful, it was if they did, then they would grow wealthy in place of Pākehā who, in turn, would not.
These Pākehā would therefore be in a “lower condition” in society than Māori. This was intolerable for many, particularly if brought up to believe that the British are superior to all others. In this racial hierarchy of their nightmares, any system where Māori do better than Pākehā can only arise because of corruption or Māori unfairly prospering.
The complaints I hear today about so-called Māori elites have a real whiff of racism about them.
The reason I can make this statement is because the same vitriol is not pointed at so-called white elites. There does not seem to be the antagonism to white people who can be considered part of the financial elite, the political elite, and the cultural elite.
New Zealand’s 311 wealthiest families pay 8.8 per cent tax on their income compared to the 10.5 per cent paid by those on the minimum wage and there was only brief complaint about that from some left-leaning commentators.
While there may be some envy directed towards those on the rich list, it is a long time since I heard someone railing against them as if they shouldn’t exist. It is also not the same people complaining about Pākehā elites as the ones complaining about Māori elites. Why is that?
One complains about their share of the tax take, the other complains that Māori elites shouldn’t even exist. The thinking behind this is the belief that Māori are too undeserving to have members who take advantage of education, business and investments, who end up having the skills and experience desired by business and government, because the system should not be set up to benefit Māori people at the expense of Pākehā people.
My point here is not to defend those considered by society as being part of an elite. As an Associate Professor in a leading University some would put me in there somewhere. My point is the hypocrisy of those who would attack Māori elites and ignore Pākehā who are far wealthier, have far more power, far more influence, sometimes for generation after generation.
It is as if their success is natural and expected and any Māori success or influence is an abomination. By all means expose corruption and excess, however just because some Māori have benefitted from the system when some Pākehā have not, does not mean that we are taking over the world.
Anaru Eketone is an Associate Professor in social and community work at the University of Otago and a columnist for the Otago Daily Times. This article is published with permission.