Belated Response to Muriel Newman on Institutional Racism

I recently stumbled upon a disturbing blog posted on 14th July 2013 by Dr Muriel Newman from the right-wing think tank New Zealand Centre for Political Research. It was about a subject I am passionate about - institutional racism. Her post is riddled with misinformation and factual inaccuracies that, in the interests of informed debate, I feel moved to unravel for the discerning reader.

The following points address only a handful of the inaccuracies in her post.

1.       A campaign is underway to convince the public that racism in the government sector is responsible for poor social outcomes for Māori.

Inaccurate - The cause of inequitable health and social outcomes is multi-dimensional and complex (see Max Rashbrooke’s new book Inequality: A New Zealand crisis). Institutional racism, colonisation and neoliberalism are only some of the causes of these entrenched disparities. Those of us involved in countering institutional racism are not campaigning to convince the public of the existence of institutional racism for this is well established. Instead, we are trying to find sustainable mechanisms to eradicate institutional racism within the administration of the public sector once and for all.

2.       The solution is preferential treatment for Māori - by enshrining the ‘principles’ of the Treaty of Waitangi into law.

Inaccurate – Since the time of enlightenment, Western democracies have been built on the notion of a social contract between the people and their government. That is, that citizens forfeit some of their rights and freedom but in return place a duty of care on the government to address the needs of all of its people. The government providing services to Māori is not preferential treatment; rather, it is fulfilling their part of the social contract.

Within the New Zealand context our government also has particular obligations to address the needs of Māori under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, particularly within the context of article three where Māori were guaranteed the same rights and privileges of British subjects. It seems reasonable to assume poorer social outcomes across health, education, justice, employment etc. is not what was meant in Te Tiriti o Waitangi by the same rights and privileges.

I welcome the consolidation of Te Tiriti o Waitangi within our constitutional arrangements and within all relevant legislation. By Te Tiriti o Waitangi, I deliberately mean the Māori text of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, which promised honourable kāwantanga (governorship) (article one), reaffirmed Māori / hapū tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty) (article two) and ōritetanga (equality) (article three). To date the New Zealand government has invented over 30 principles related to the Treaty of Waitangi (Hayward, 1997). As Sir Mason Durie (1994, p. 85)puts it:

“Māori, placing greater emphasis on the actual words of the Treaty, have never been entirely comfortable with a focus on principles, sometimes because the definition of principles has been left to the Crown, acting on its own.”

3.       The causes [of inequitable social outcomes] are welfare dependency, family breakdown and educational failure that do not discriminate according to ethnicity. It is not institutional racism that causes more young Māori to get into trouble with the law…

Inaccurate – In order to understand inequitable social outcomes we need to examine the causes of the causes, we need to look beyond the superficial and own the complexity of the deep end of the pool. Where does welfare dependency, family breakdown and educational failure come from? Muriel is right, it is not a function of ethnicity; rather, a function of historic and contemporary racism. I believe the evidence (Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2009; Gracey & King, 2009; King, Smith, & Gracey, 2009; Robson, 2007) within the context of public health is particularly clear in relation to this, with little, if any, credible counter argument yet to emerge.

The insidious practices of colonisation and assimilation, as documented in Waitangi Tribunal reports, have had profound and intergenerational impacts on indigenous wellbeing. These practices are inherently racist in that they assume the superiority of one group of people and the privileging of their cultural institutions over the pre-existing indigenous systems and protocols. The contemporary evidence of institutional racism within the administration of the public sector goes stronger every day, particularly in the context of the criminal justice sector. Check out the work of Kim Workman and Rethinking Crime and Punishment.

4.       The basis of the claim of ‘institutional racism’ appears to be a body of work undertaken by the Human Rights Commission in 2010. They interviewed 35 people (yes 35!).

The existence of institutional racism within the administration of the public sector has been well documented since the mid-1980s, when a range of key reports were released (Berridge et al., 1984; Herewini, Wilson, & Peri, 1985; Jackson, 1988; Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective on Social Welfare, 1988). This has been followed up with a range of more recent studies addressing both personally-mediated and institutional racism (Came, 2012; Fergusson, Swain-Campbell, & Horwood, 2003; Just Speak, 2012; Sutherland & Alexander, 2002).

Having closely read the Human Rights Commission (HRC) report A Fair go for All, Muriel’s comments are a little misleading. The HRC may well have done 35 key informant interviews which in research standards is a lot but they also cited nearly 300 documents that go some-way to  unravel how structural discrimination works.  I could go on… but I think I have made my point. Perhaps Muriel would benefit from reading further on this subject before she next contributes to this debate.

Heather Came



Berridge, D., Cowan, L., Cumberland, T., Davys, A., McDowell, H., Morgan, J., . . . Wallis, P. (1984). Institutional racism in the Department of Social Welfare. Auckland, New Zealand: Department of Social Welfare.

Came, H. (2012). Institutional racism and the dynamics of privilege in public health. Unpublished doctorate, Waikato University, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from

Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (Ed.). (2009). State of the world's indigenous peoples (ST/ESA/328). New York, NY: United Nations, Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Durie, M. (1994). Whaiora: Māori health development. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press. Fergusson, D., Swain-Campbell, N., & Horwood, J. (2003). Ethnicity and criminal convictions: Results of a 21-year longitudinal study. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 43(3), 354-367. doi: 10.1375/acri.36.3.354

Gracey, M., & King, M. (2009). Indigenous health part one: determinants and disease patterns. The Lancet, 374(9683), 65-75. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)60914-4

Hayward, J. (1997). The principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. In A. Ward (Ed.), Rangahau whanui national overview report (pp. 475-494). Wellington, New Zealand: Waitangi Tribunal.

Herewini, M., Wilson, R., & Peri, M. (1985). Maori Advisory Unit Report. Auckland, New Zealand: Department of Social Welfare.

Jackson, M. (1988). The Māori and the criminal justice system: He whaipānga hou: A new perspective. Wellington, New Zealand: Department of Justice.

Just Speak. (2012). Māori and the criminal justice system: A youth perspective. Wellington, New Zealand: Author. King, M., Smith, A., & Gracey, M. (2009).

Indigenous health part two: The underlying causes of the health gap. The Lancet, 374(9683), 76-85. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(09)60827-8 Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective on Social Welfare. (1988).

Puao te ata tu (Day break). Wellington, New Zealand: Department of Social Welfare. Robson, B. (2007).

Economic determinants of Maori health and disparities. In M. Bargh (Ed.), Resistance: An indigenous response to neoliberalism (pp. 45-61). Wellington, New Zealand: Huia. Sutherland, H., & Alexander, R. (2002).

The occupational distribution of Maori 1997-2000 (Economics discussion paper series No.204.). 1-25. Retrieved from Otago University website:

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