A consistent theme the Commission encountered in its research and meetings is the intrinsic connection between ethnic inequality and structural discrimination on the one hand and the broader context of New Zealand society on the other. In particular, societal and public attitudes, deficit theorising, intergenerational factors and socio-economic factors must form part of this discussion because these elements contribute to and exacerbate the impacts of structural discrimination. Giving better effect to the Treaty of Waitangi – discussed more fully in the previous section – was also cited as a means to overcome systemic barriers to equality.
In meetings with government agencies, many people expressed the view that racist and discriminatory attitudes held by individuals feed into systemic discrimination. Systems are run
, after all, by people. In 2012, the Commission identified racial prejudice as a barrier to progress in racial equality:
Racial prejudice is judging before we know. In that sense, it includes: negative attitudes to the Treaty, to indigenous rights, to Māori, Pacific peoples, Asians, migrants and refugees. These prejudices are still far too prevalent, and compromise efforts to address race relations issues. They lead to discrimination, marginalisation, and the perpetuation of injustice and inequalities, and prevent the social and economic benefits of diversity being fully realised. Racial prejudice in its many forms continues to frustrate the achievement of positive race relations in New Zealand.57
The existence of racist attitudes in New Zealand is explored in research by Bernard Guerin, and in research by Antonia C. Lyons, Helen Madden, Kerry Chamberlain and Stuart Carr (Lyons et al). Both projects analyse casual conversations, some of which were about non-ethnicity related subjects (in which ethnicity arose), others were prompted by news articles related to ethnicity. Guerin found that people “do not openly slander members of other racial groups but they still subtly talk in prejudicial ways when safe to do so.”58 Lyons et al highlighted the subtlety of modern racism including the denial of prejudice and criticising minority conclude that:
In New Zealand, the talk of these young adults works in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways to reinforce current patterns of social power and inequities
, normalising andjustifying the status quo (the dominant Pākehā culture). Such constructions draw on talk about the nation and nation-space to create further versions of new and modern racism which reify and legitimate patterns of social power and dominance.59
The 2006/07 New Zealand Health Survey shows the number of patients who felt “treated with respect and dignity” by their primary health care provider varied by ethnicity. The survey reports Asian, Pacific and Māori adults “were significantly less likely than adults in the total population ... to report that their health care professional treated them with respect and dignity ‘all of the time’.60
This research supports the views expressed in meetings with government agencies. There were cases where Māori public servants had experienced discrimination based on ethnicity. For example, a Māori woman received poor service from a bank teller when applying for a mortgage using her Māori name. The woman said that service improved when her husband provided the teller with his Pākehā name.
The existence of individual and collective racist attitudes should not be forgotten in discussion about structural discrimination: as heard in the workshops, “attitudes inform and shape how systems are made.” Some people spoken to underlined the importance of focusing on behaviours as opposed to attitudes – that the behaviour of service providers is more important than attitudes in contributing to inequalities and it is in the realm of behaviour where systemic change will take place.
The difference between individual (or personal) racism and institutional racism is important here. While both forms of racism have negative implications for marginalised groups, individual acts of racism often receive more public attention as they are often overt and easier to identify than entrenched less visible forms of racism within institutional policies and practices. Additionally, as sociologist Professor Wornie Reed explains:
While individual level racism affects a modest number of individuals, a racist institutional policy can systematically disadvantage many members of a racial group, and the consequences can endure for many years, even for generations.61
It was recognised that racist and discriminatory attitudes held by individuals are interconnected with structural discrimination. As a starting point, focus was on structural discrimination but it is done in the hope that systemic change will improve individual attitudes.
The cause of ethnic inequalities is still sometimes attributed in popular discourse to deficit theories
, a flawed model that according to educational psychologist Richard Valencia has roots in racist discourse spanning well over a century. Deficit theorising can be traced back to nineteenth-century ‘scientific racism’, which was itself a development of – and justification for – imperialism and colonialism.
Today, deficit theories, also known as “victim blaming,” are popular explanations for ethnic disparities, placing blame on ethnic minorities for failures believed to be based on internal deficits or deficiencies. Such thinking claims that deficits manifest in limited intellectual abilities, linguistic shortcomings and lack of motivation or hard work.62 Deficit thinking ignores the structural factors within dominant culture systems that give rise to ethnic disparities:
Blaming the victim” [is] a way of thinking about social problems that locates their origins in the purported deficits and failings of their victims rather than in the social institutions and practices that had brought about and sustained their victimisation.63
Recent research by social scientists has contested and discredited such theories, yet the foundations for deficit thinking often re-emerge in new forms and are frequently reproduced in the media and public discourse. Such theories can contribute to misinformed social policy which fails to acknowledge structural discrimination and embedded systemic barriers to equality.