The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

an excuse for racism

I was overseas when the Kahui twins were killed, and when the media attention began, and so I wasn't going to post on it. But the reaction, and the coverage by journalists and bloggers, has really got to me, even though I've tried to avoid it. A conversation at work today has pushed me to actually write about it here, to somehow try to communicate, without falling into the trap of seeming to excuse the actions of the (still unknown) killer, that the race of the family is not the key issue here.

I find it incredibly sad when children are killed. When Coral Burrows went missing I was glued to the radio, wanting, desperately, to hear that they had found her, that she was ok. Like many others I know, my heart sank when I heard of her fate.

But I don't recall any statements at that time that it was because Burrows' step-father was Pakeha, and that you just expect that kind of thing from those kinds of people. (I would also note that at the time Graham Capill's name was made public there was no claim that that's just the way whities are brought up, it's their cultural thing to sexually abuse children.)

Yes the rate of death by murder amongst Maori children is higher than in the general population. But, as noddy points out in a comment on Kiwiblog, surely that is an argument for the idea that some separate policies and initiatives for Maori might be needed? Something many of those muttering "bloody Marees" oppose tooth and nail.

From what I've heard and read, the Kahui and King families were right on the margins - they lived in a world I would imagine very few bloggers have seen or set foot in, let alone lived in all their days. It's certainly a place I've never seen more than a few glimpses of.

I'm not denying that there are cultural issues behind violence. We need to tackle them, for sure, but we need to do it in a way that people will actually listen - labelling it as just something those People Who Are Not Like Us do is not going to make any difference.

I suspect that the main common factor amongst child murders in NZ is that the victims, and the killers, come from low-income families where there is a high level of alienation. In other words: poverty.

The Herald's incredibly unhelpful, dare I say blatantly irresponsible, article Taxpayers shell out for Kahuis claimed that the family's nine adults/teenagers and several children will be receiving between $845 and $1395 a week in benefit payments. According to the Herald there is only one paid worker in the family, who is a cleaner, and, as I've previously blogged about, cleaning isn't the most lucrative of jobs. Very generously assuming that the cleaner's wage is enough to support himself and the children, that means there are another 8 people, 3 of them teenagers who might be at school, living off a maximum of $1395 a week. That's $174 each a week, at the most, and quite possibly considerably less. Not exactly a lot of dosh, in fact it's the equivalent of being paid $4.35 an hour (after tax). Not surprising then that this is a family living below the poverty line, below the radar of our society, and beyond the understanding of many in the more comfortable classes.

When a family is under continual financial stress violence and abuse become more likely. Add in a past history of family violence, substance addictions, unemployment, and the pressure of new born twins, and the odds increase. Put a person pre-disposed to lash out into that pressure cooker and matters become even worse.

What is the first thing that can be done to try to stop this cycle? Increase incomes. Take the financial pressure off and you allow a family to live in a situation that is not cramped and untenable in the long term. You give them the head space to be able to say no to bad options, to cut their reliance on bad people, to seek help* and advice (which is so rarely free these days).

None of this excuses the killer. None of it. But it is a more useful discussion, surely, than just to say it's because of the race of the family.

To say that this case proves that child abuse is a "Maori" problem is to excuse non-Maori who abuse their children. It puts the problem in a little box that means that those who aren't tangata whenua can ignore it, because it isn't our problem. The most strenuous things will get for us is the danger of straining our finger muscles when we wag our disapproving digits in the direction of those Other People, over there.

Isn't the death of these children sad enough, without it being used as an excuse for blatant racism, and a justification for ignoring the real issue?


* And on another note, we need to stop attaching so much stigma to seeking help, from CYFS or anywhere else. But that's a whole other post.

Postscript: I noticed, just after I first posted this, that Idiot Savant has written about the right to silence in the Kahui case and I whole-heartedly agree.

Update: Since I posted this yesterday DPF and Jordan have posted their contrasting views (DPF also includes a selective round-up of some other views on the blogs and from politicians).

21 comments:

Gary F said...

Well-argued, span, and it's great to have you back.

I had thought it would be the case that there is a right to silence. When my mum was raving on about this issue, I asked her, "Wouldn't the Kahuis be entitled to close ranks?" She hissed a (now apparently unfounded) argument otherwise. I was right all along.

I've heard a lot of rubbish on talkback radio claiming that if this were a Pakeha family, the police would be straight in there. That is another example of racism in the belief that the Kahui family are somehow getting preferential treatment under the law here.

For the sake of being aware of how cluelessly racist many people are being about this, it's good to know for certain that a non-Maori family would have exactly the same amount of ability to close ranks as the Kahuis have.

PabloR said...

Careful. Using reasoned argument like this might make some people think that you support the baby killers' right to kill babies.

Carl said...

I think the thing is that one has to separate the individual and
collective response. The individual who killed these kids has to be arrested and busted off to chokey, not because it will be helpful, but because that is just what one has to do. However, applying that "punitive" approach to the whole extended family is just not helpful if one wants to stop it happening again. I think the key is whether we want to stop it happening again, or whether we just want a chance to yell at
disadvantaged people.

One thing that occurred to me was, why is Winz not helping these people to get jobs. It defies belief that in the current situation, only one in 10 adults in the family had a job. It would seem that they must need some sort's of assistance to try and break the cycle as it were.

span said...

thanks for the comments.

I was quite startled at the idea that only one out of those people had a job, but when you actually look at the Herald article you will see that three of the people they count are teenagers and may actually still be at school or in some form of training. So might some of the adults for that matter.

But even if they are it's still a dismay that the family has such a low level of employment. My observation (and personal experience) is that having a job has benefits quite beyond the income - self-esteem and social connection being just two.

Trouble said...

Nobody so far (probably - I haven't waded through all DPF's comments on the issue) has mentioned the very interesting thing TV3 showed on Monday night about filicide. It looked at several cases of Pakeha middle-class caring fathers (mostly - one mother was mentioned) who deliberately killed all their kids in the context of relationship problems with the other parent. Usually they managed to kill themselves as well. They would make up a significant proportion of NZ child killings over the last decade (based on a sample of ones I can remember). Not so much an income/employment issue as a gender and relationship violence issue.

Contrast the coverage of the murders of Delcelia Witika, James Whakaruru, Lillybing and the twins with these "devoted fathers". These guys even have defenders in the Fathers' Rights movement, who blame the Family Court etc for driving them to desperation.

He-Hole-ad said...

well, yes, Span, lifting incomes of those in poverty would help but does not guarantee it would not happen. Of the infanticide cases over the years, there have been some from families that were not hand to mouth. And there are plenty of families in poverty who do not commit such atrocities.

Is throwing money at the problem going to solve it?

It's rather like airplance crashes. Usually they are not the result of any one single factor but the the culmination of multiple safety failures. Which leads one to ask the question "Why did the system already in place not catch the problem when there were numerous occasions for it to?"
Multiple reasons for this tragedy, I suspect.

ZenTiger said...

We only know what the media tell us. Very little. The rest is speculation. While it doesn't look good, there is a small possibility the twins did not meet their end via deliberate violence. The medical reports I've seen are low on real information.

If the family involved is convinced they are all innocent, they would be naturally be very reticent about offering up a sacrificial suspect to be crucified by public opinion.

A far out theory perhaps, but who really knows? Every-one is looking for reasons because of the tragedy, and people want justice.

Whatever the outcome, I hope the twins receive justice, and I sincerely hope it is based on the truth.

Apathy Jack said...

I teach a couple of cousins.

The family are not innocent.

Make Tea Not War said...

I don't really know much about this particular case but I do know child abuse is often cyclic and its consequences are complex. Children bought up in violent chaotic homes are often damaged emotionally and physically. I read a study of such children aged about five in Britain who, as one of the consequences of the fact of their home environment, could not look someone in the eye. Perhaps that does sound like such a big deal but it actually is quite damaging in terms of your ability to get on in the world. Would you want to employ someone who couldn't look at you? Things like untreated glue ear and head injuries can also have long term very negative effects. You don't learn to read properly. You can be subject to uncontrollable rage. Throw in drugs and poverty and you have a situation that when children bought up in these sort of environments go on to have their own children they are sometimes just not capable of providing a nurturing, stable environment. They've never learnt how to.

I think the way to deal with it is very high levels of support for the parents and,if necessary, supervision and intervention for at risk children from birth. I may lose left wing liberal cred for saying this but I think the rights of these children come before the rights of their parents for the greater good. Apart from the humanitarian arguments for protecting vulnerable children and giving them a decent start in life we, as taxpayers, would all save money down the road- because the truth is that the percentage of the population wo fall under this category cost us a lot in terms of benefits, policing, prisons and costs to the health system.

He-Hole-ad said...

MTNW: Part of the problem in Nu Zilin is not that such intervention is not already sanctioned by the state (there are arguably too many cases of children being removed from their parents care) but the system that fails to identify children at risk.

We also have some major deficiencies when it comes to people taking responsibility for themselves and by extension those in their care. Too often, people are either unrewarded for taking ownership or even told that the guhmint will provide. Add to this mixture a trend toward "individualism" - the rights of the individual are supreme, bugger the effect on others, and we have a situation where its is "ask not what you can do for your country but ask what your country owes you."

And to think we are the 9th most patriotic country in the world.

Make Tea Not War said...

If we aren't identifying children at risk then we aren't trying hard enough. Anyone who has worked in the court system or in a community role soon gets a pretty clear idea of who the families are who are dysfunctional- because the same families keep coming up again and again. They are the ones always on the verge of being evicted, always been sued in the civil courts with poor credit ratings, in the criminal courts, known to noise control and so forth.

I don't think taking children away from their parents and putting them into an institutional environnment or poor quality foster care is the answer but I don't think we do enough for the children born into these families.

I was talking to a Plunkett nurse fairly recently and she told me she had a number of clients like one who was a fifteen year old junkie with two children. This woman or child really was allocated a handful of Plunkett visits. The nurse said she tried to do more but she was limited in terms of her time and workload. Should this mother take responsibility for her children and provide a loving stable home for them and not look to the State for support? Of course that would be ideal. Is she capable of doing so? I don't think I'd have been a terribly responsible or good mother at 15. Do her children deserve to suffer because of who they happened to be born to? I don't think so.

The time to break the cycle is now. When her children are young. Teach them that they live in a community that cares and will not abandon them in need and also that they can aspire to be more and in time make a worthwhile contribution themselves.

span said...

I have a relative who's a Plunket nurse too and some of the stories she tells me are pretty horrific. The work they do is great, but the transience of the families makes it sometimes impossible to spend any time with the parents, or babies, in the most dire situations. If it's hard for Plunket nurses, who have probably the least stigma attached to them (of all the agencies dealing with families at risk), then I can't imagine what it must be like for the social workers, or Work & Income. :-(

Maryanne said...

Hi, I've not read all the responses to the original comment so may be repeating something. Anyway, in the world of what is possible rather than what is achievable short or medium term, I have read lots of comments on the net to the effect that poverty is often at the root of these social problems, but also that many people grew up 'dirt poor' in an atmosphere of love so it is no excuse. So what has changed? Seems to me that TV is a primary offender. TV that beams advertising and lifestyle expectations into our homes hour by hour, day by day, week by week, year by year. Today in not having a VCR or a car, or any number of other mod cons I think people feel deprived. Poverty is not just about money or lack of it - it is not that expensive to live if you know how to live cheaply and don't see having to do this is a loss of face. It's the poverty of the heart and mind that worries me the most. And yes, it has to be said the dreaded TV runs on an extremely capitalist model, one which is Western driven and it does none of us any favours. However, knowing this is not very helpful is it!! Anyway that's my take on the poverty conversation - that it is one not necessarily, and ironically so, solved by throwing money at it.

iiq374 said...

"What is the first thing that can be done to try to stop this cycle?"
Decrease the number of births in poverty line families. Preferably through education and working to increase the opportunities for employment etc.

Throwing money at a dysfunctional poverty line family is the second less effective measure

span said...

Is it realistically possible to decrease the number of births in poor families without someone bringing coercion into it? eg if you're already on the DPB/in a "benefit cluster" and you get pregnant again your benefit gets cut? I worry that it's going down a slippery slope to do more than make people aware of their options, give them free access to contraception, and encourage them to make healthy choices about their lives...

iiq374 said...

You could start by introducing into beneficiary education statistics to do with child health, education and future dependency. I believe there are at least at least a few of the beneficiary clusters that are formed simply because the mothers / fathers do not understand the futures they are sending their children into.

span said...

That's a good idea iiq, and I think someone mentioned something, possibly on Jordan's blog, about mentoring, which would be a great thing too.

Anonymous said...

"those kiddies should never have been born. AJ I don't think this is simply a case of a struggling mother not getting enough support from family or community. This is a mother who could not care a jot about her children... her many children. Not just the unfortunate twins who died - I have heard that this woman has been giving birth regularly, for several years, and has had 7 kids all to different fathers after short lived relationships, and that she really couldn't give a toss about any of her offspring. Most of the kids have been 'rescued' and taken off her hands by other members of her family or the families of the various fathers. They are the lucky ones. This woman is completely irresponsible,( the hospital knew that, as soon as the kids were delivered to her) and she needs to be sterilized immediately. If ever any tax payers money could be put to good use, I say, use it to sterilise women who simply do not give a rat's tail ."
http://realwomen.co.nz/forum/viewtopic.php?t=365&start=120

And here I was, thinking Hitler was dead...

span said...

Depressing isn't it.

I wrote a bit about that attitude specifically in these two posts:
http://spanblather.blogspot.com/2006/07/reasons-not-excuses.html
and
http://spanblather.blogspot.com/2006/07/look-mum-no-hands.html

When people are starting to talk about castrating others, against their will, well you know that person isn't seeing the objects of their wrath as fellow human beings. Very sad.

Anonymous said...

This woman's analysis of, “racism” below, is feeble. Racism is about having the power to implement prejudices. Racism is prejudice, which is acted upon.
In a hostile world, every racial or ethnic minority, every
marginalised group in society, learns to cope with an all-pervasive
discrimination if they are to survive and flourish. Many racially discriminatory attitudes and practices are passively accepted, absorbed and, in effect, tolerated by the defined group. Other attitudes and practices are more direct and hurtful, and cannot readily be handled or shrugged off as a mere ‘fact of
life'.

"Endemic racism
Aboriginal children—unlike disenchanted, dislocated and disaffected non-Aboriginal youth—are socialized from birth to an endemic and all-pervasive racism.
Racism means that Aborigines are perceived as different because of
their `physical' attributes, such as colour. These differences are
equated with social characteristics, such as culture or lifestyle.
These physical-social characteristics are considered socially
significant. And then, most importantly, the perceiver believes s/he is
therefore justified either in having negative attitudes towards
people with those physically-based social attributes, or in taking
some action against them.

Racism is more than prejudice. The latter is a mind-set, a mere
predisposition. In the thirteenth century, St Thomas Aquinas phrased
it as, `thinking ill of others without sufficient warrant'.

So in view of the comments below, by “Sylke” one has to ask, what power do Maori women and whanau have over their lives, on their lands?

Sylke writes:
“This is international - Wikipaedia describes this whole debacle and the case is entrenched in international history.
;
The family closed ranks, were allowed privileges above and beyond by the NZ Government and Justice Department. Two half siblings of the mother say its a male and the paternal grandmother says its a woman responsible.

This is not Helen Clark's fault although many would try to cast blame upon her. Successive overindulgent, PC governments are responsible for this debacle. New Zealand is down there with all the Middle Eastern terrorist countries. Beautiful, clean, green, innovative, young, vibrant, culturally aware, overly PC New Zealand. Aint that the biggest shame of all!!

As a descendant of the earliest white settlers/missionaries I am dumbfounded. The racism is rampant and it works in reverse to what is claimed by the 'indiginous peoples'.... it is a reverse racism. ('obese white bitches' sic) This thread has identified the social. anathema that divides the country. This forum has sought to unite and renove stigmas of perception. Two members have sought to bring it back and manipulate the discussion to their own ends and, shamefully, not even using their own words.

I post my last. I know who killed those twins. It is abundantly clear to all. That is New Zealand's shame and I weep for my country - the one I yearn to return to....but who am I? A not-nearly-as-obese-as-I-was-white-middle-class-bitch. Was it a white middle class bitch who killed those wee babes? I dont think so. She is trying to run the country to the best of her ability and in the best interests of the majority.”
By Sylke http://realwomen.co.nz/forum/viewtopic.php?t=365&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=135

I wonder if this woman can keep such a holier than thou attitude, when she’s not making decisions about whether to pay her (overdue) bills or to feed her children, all the while being treated less favourably in her own land?

How can Sylke, living within the confines of America, even begin to remove stigmas of perception, when she clearly demonstrates no idea what a life lived under the conditions of racism and poverty is.

She and her fellow collaborators maintains her interests, (as well as all the other colonial squatters in Aotearoa, who want to remain guilt free) so that their forefathers’ dispossession has nothing to do with the position of the dispossessed today. These women suffer discriminations for being obese, so ought to have some insights of being marginalised, yet nonetheless buy into the privileged mug attitudes.

http://realwomen.co.nz/forum/viewtopic.php?t=365&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=135

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