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Libertarian: Discourses of Denial

CHAPTER FOUR: THEORISING RACISM AND PRIVILEGE

4.2 Libertarian: Discourses of Denial

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unmarked position of normality alongside other strategic efforts to systemically disrupt this privilege.

White feminist, McIntosh (1988) in her landmark essay on the subject, describes white privilege as a collection of unearned assets, an invisible weightless knapsack of white privilege that has special provisions such as: “...maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” that can be cashed in at any time. She explains (1988, p. 1):

...whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative and average and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us’.

In examining privilege, she maintains it is necessary to confront the myth of meritocracy, the realisation that certain doors are opened and closed for people through no virtue of their own.

White privilege, contends activist educator Curry-Stevens (2007, p. 41) is often upheld by the unexamined acceptance of the long routine power relationships and dynamics in societies that maintain the status quo. Critical white theorist, Wildman (1996, p. 52) argues social and financial inheritance is a critical example of normalised white privilege. Due to slavery and widespread practices of colonisation, historically whites have had considerable opportunities to accumulate wealth not open to all. These advantages have been enhanced through the enactment of well-documented discriminatory legislation and practices (see Katznelson, 2005) that continue to be exacerbated through taxation policy and practices, which reward the elite.

In summary, just as institutional racism can be tracked to demonstrate structural disadvantage against indigenous peoples, so can white privilege be quantified across education, employment, access to housing to reveal white systemic advantage. This analysis is diametrically opposed to the race-free worldview of libertarian advocates.

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appropriation conveniently overlooks King’s consistent calls for the end of systemic discrimination by both the state and the dominant white population.

To understand libertarian discourses, Tuffin (2008, p. 5) contends it is useful to make a distinction between old-fashioned racism and more recent manifestations.

The former is characterised by direct, explicit and blatant advocacy of white supremacy and physical violence, and the latter are typified by being more subtle, complex and socially acceptable. New, seemingly benign, libertarian standpoints (discussed in subsequent sections) are set against moral values such as the protestant work ethic, self-discipline and individual achievement, not biological or genetic superiority. Discourse theorists, Myers and Williamson (2002, p. 22) asserts:

...the public face of racism reflects the official rhetoric of formal equality and antiracism, but the deeply ingrained racism captured in private race talk reflects the racist ideology “deeply embedded in our social structures’

and practices”.

Denunciation of the relevance of history to contemporary racial inequities is, according to critical psychologist, Leach (2005, p. 434) a longstanding feature of libertarian denials of institutional racism. Although some libertarians acknowledge the problematic historic existence of racism, critical psychologist, McConahay (1986) holds they believe it has now ‘been fixed’ by the civil rights movement and assorted government sponsored anti-discrimination programmes, so everyone can now freely participate within the marketplace.

Sociologists, Zamudio and Rios (2006, p. 487) contend this standpoint allows

“...white America to disconnect itself with this country’s racial history, for them, history no longer matters, and color-blind60 America, individuals rise and fall on their merit”. It denies the existence of the structural disadvantage of indigenous peoples while simultaneously obscuring the structural advantage or racial privileges enjoyed by whites.

Within the next section, I examine critiques of Affirmative Action Programmes (AAP), denial of indigenous peoples’ rights, cultural deficit theory, and discourses of political correctness as illustrations of libertarian standpoints in relation to institutional racism and privilege.

The Case against Affirmative Action

“If you give all the plants in the world the same amount of water, some will die”.

Equal treatment can increase rather than close the social and economic gaps between different groups, and appropriate specific measures are needed to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity (Jonas as cited in De Bres, 2004, February, p. 7).

60 Colour blindness refers to a belief that race ‘should not and does not matter’.

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Across the planet, groups of people cannot gain access on anything like equal terms to social resources like higher education, employment and health services that are essential for human flourishing. Figure 9 below shows a well-known cartoon depicting the structural realities of equal treatment without affirmative action.

Figure 9: Fair Selection Cartoon61

Affirmative Action Programs (AAP)62 are a widely used structural mechanism to facilitate equality of access to opportunities legitimated through international human rights instruments (see United Nations, 1976a, 2001). AAP can both act to redress the outcomes of socio-historical racism and promote diversity within employment and education. Moses (2010) maintains within different national contexts justifications for AAP need to be invoked strategically depending on the current (local) racial climate. She advocates a moral justification for AAP grounded in aspirations for greater social justice.

Critics hold that AAP is an intrinsically unfair form of reverse discrimination that disadvantages whites. Psychologists, Awad, Cokley and Ravitch (2005, p. 1386) hold this claim of unfairness centres around its violation of the merit principle, that individual’s achievements should be proportional to input or effort. This is illustrated in Augoustinos, Tuffin and Every’s (2005, p. 324) study on affirmative action discourse in education, which utilised viewpoints from tertiary students.

61 I was unable to identify the creator of this cartoon but it has been widely used by activists in New Zealand since the 1970s specifically by the EEO Trust, CORSO and it has been published variously in the Treaty Times, Tiriohia and the PPPTA journal without a complete reference.

When and if the creator is identified future publications resulting from this thesis will include this information and relevant permissions will be sought.

62 AAP within the context of universities Parker (2006, p. 18) maintains can involve initiatives such as: “...minority student and faculty recruitment, and minority retention through administration of special scholarships, diversity web sites, diversity centres, and ethnic study programs”.

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And I’m one against sort of holding places open for specific groups (Mmm) umm not because I’m racist or discriminating but because I think that merit is the most important thing you give a person the job because you think they are capable of doing it not because of who they are and I know that if I was put to that situation I probably would prefer not to take that job because I wouldn’t have, I’d never know whether I got the job because I might be male or because I’m white so it’s I think it’s a really difficult line to walk.

Sociologists, Zamudio and Rios (2006, p. 487) hold white opposition to AAP is also predicated on concerns around breaches of the principle of equal opportunity, which was a central principle to the agenda of the civil rights movement. They contend affirmative action is ‘preferential treatment’ of certain groups, which is widely used to discredit indigenous peoples’ rights claims. Management theorists, Harrison, Kravitz, Mayer, Leslie and Lev-Arey (2006, p. 1031) in their meta-analysis of AAP programmes concluded that attitudes to AAP stem from both the content of the programmes and critically how organisations communicate about the programs.

According to cultural theorists, Omni and Winnant (1994) opposition to AAP in the 1980s led the Reagan administration to redirect the Commission on Civil Rights63, to make addressing “reverse discrimination” its’ highest priority.

Commenting on AAP at the University of Michigan, United States President, Bush (2003, January 15) stated:

At the Law School, some minority students were admitted to meet percentage targets, while other applicants with higher grades and better scores are passed over. This means that students are being selected or rejected based primarily on the color of their skin. The motivation for such an admissions policy may be very good, but its result is discrimination and that discrimination is wrong.

Judicial and political debate about affirmative action remains active within the United States. Political commentator, Sherman (2009, February 7) contends the trend remains for increasingly conditional support for AAP with a clear movement away from blanket quota systems.

Indigenous Peoples’ Rights as Unfair Privileges

This Declaration [United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples], far from affirming rights that place indigenous peoples in a privileged position, aims at repairing the ongoing consequences of the historical denial of the right to self-determination and other basic human rights

(Anaya, 2010a, p. 2).

63 The Commission on Human Rights is a state watchdog group in the United States responsible for monitoring progress and problems in racial equality.

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Indigenous peoples have exercised their sovereignty and asserted their rights for thousands of years. It is only in recent decades various forums within the United Nations have acknowledged these claims, including most recently with the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Collective indigenous rights claims clash with libertarian views around the supremacy of both the individual and the market. Libertarian opposition to indigenous peoples’ rights claims mirrors and extends arguments put forward to oppose AAP. Libertarians argue that ethnically targeting social spending and historical reparations are affirmative action. This targeted investment and mechanisms for ensuring indigenous representation in governance roles such as Māori seats within New Zealand parliament are dismissed within such discourses as special unfair privileges (Barber, 2008, p. 149).

Research undertaken within Aotearoa and Australia has identified similar themes across white discourse around indigenous peoples’ rights through analysis of media, political and historical texts (Augoustinos et al., 1999; Barber, 2008; Van Dijk, 1992). Discourse theorists Wetherell and Potter (1992, p. 177) identify these themes as:

Everybody should be treated equally.

You cannot turn the clock backwards.

Present generations cannot be blamed for the mistakes of past generations.

Minority opinion should not carry more weight than majority opinion.

We have to live in the twentieth (or twenty-first) century.

Implicit and explicit across these themes is firstly a denial of indigenous peoples’

rights, and secondly an unwillingness to address the historical outcomes of colonisation, that have contributed to contemporary racial disparities.

These populist libertarian positions and fears about “getting a fair deal for whites”

are manipulated and regularly played out by politicians to secure favour with voters prior to elections. Former Australian Member of Parliament, Hon. Pauline Hansen of the One Nation Party is a champion of this genre (Augoustinos et al., 1999). Her infamous maiden speech (1996, September) epitomises libertarian denial of institutional racism:

I am fed up with being told, ‘This is our land’. Well, where the hell do I go? I was born here, and so were my parents and children. I will work beside anyone and they will be my equal but I draw the line when told I must pay and continue paying for something that happened over 200 years ago. Like most Australians, I worked for my land; no-one gave it to me.

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In Aotearoa former National Party leader, Hon. Don Brash got considerable political and media mileage from attacking ‘special privileges’ Māori were allegedly receiving from the Crown. Brash (2004, January, p. 13) stated:

There can be no basis for special privileges for any race, no basis for government funding based on race, no basis for introducing Maori wards in local authority elections, and no obligation for local governments to consult Maori in preference to other New Zealanders.

Political commentator, Johansson (2004, p. 119) contends Brash articulated views held by many New Zealanders “...that Maori were receiving special privileges at the expense of others and that redistribution of the nation’s resources to Maori for historical injustices had gone too far for too long”.

Cultural Deficit Theory

Many whites explain the gap between black and white earnings not by invoking inequality and prejudice, but by relying on “individualistic” explanations about thrift, hard work, and other factors-all of which tend to explain white success through white merit and equate whiteness with stability and employability (Mahoney, 1997, pp. 332-333).

Health researchers, Borell, Gregory, McCreanor, Jensen and Moewaka-Barnes (2009, p. 34) contend the framing of a problem is inherently political, as how problems are seen preclude some and privilege other solutions and resource allocation. Individual and race based explanations for racial disparities such as cultural deficit theory are often privileged by libertarian advocates. Indeed Pihama (2001, p. 139) upholds it is a dominant hegemonic discourse. From a cultural deficit standpoint, the overrepresentation of indigenous peoples and other minorities in negative social statistics is the function of systemic indigenous failure. This deficit analysis credits these failings to a lack in an individual or grouping (L. Black & Stone, 2005; M. Thomas, 2000). Valencia (1997) contends these purported failings are represented as laziness, lack of motivation and/or a welfare mentality, while Māori health advocates, Reid and Robson (2007, p. 5) maintain the failings are wrongly credited to a mix of inferior indigenous genes, intellect, education, aptitude, ability or effort.

Pihama and Gardiner (2005, p. 21) contend deficit theory has had significant influence on social policy and has become entrenched in everyday language of many New Zealanders. They argue that within deficit theorising the home environment and family background have become the focus by which to explain differences in school achievement, involvement in crime and health behaviours.

Health researchers Subban, Terwood and Schuster (2008, p. 770S) assert that those that prescribe to the deficit model tend to treat minorities as if they are deficient and need fixing. The solution to racial disparities from this standpoint is

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more cultural assimilation, as to succeed one must be assimilated and be more

‘white-like’ (Solorzano & Yosso, 2002, p. 31).

Deficit theorist, McWhorter quoted in the Los Angeles Times (George, 2000, p.

E3) articulates bluntly what critical race theorists name as a majoritarian viewpoint:

The sad but simple fact is that while there are some excellent Black students... “on average, black students do not try as hard as other students.

The reason they do not try as hard is not because they are inherently lazy, nor is it because they are stupid... these students belong to a culture infected with an anti-intellectual strain, which subtly but decisively teaches them from birth not to embrace school-work too whole-heartedly”.

Moderated by social norms about acceptability of public expressions of blatant racism, deficit theorists usually use indirect language such as ‘at risk’ and

‘disadvantaged’ communities rather than name particular ethnic groups (Van Dijk, 1992, p. 89). The effect and meaning of the discourse however remains intact.

Critics observe that deficit theory clearly positions the problem of racial disparities with minority groups, ignoring system and structural bias. This approach, according to critical whiteness scholars, Fine, Weis, Powell and Burns (1997) therefore ensures that the behaviours of dominant groups are never closely examined and white privilege is never exposed. Reid and Robson (2007, p. 5) claim there is extensive evidence that indigenous peoples receive lower levels and poorer quality service than non-indigenous peoples. They hold therefore that:

[a]ny discussion on equity and rights must be informed by acknowledging this preferential benefit accrued by Pākehā from the systems they introduced and built, and continue to redefine and control.

Dismissed as Political Correctness

Progressive attempts to combat sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination are characterised by some libertarians as attacks on the rights and freedoms of individuals to say, feel and behave as they please (Sanson et al., 1998). These objections since the 1990s have often been framed as political correctness.

Related terms include the phrase the ‘nanny state’, and assert that the state exerts excessive control over people’s lives. The implicit assumption behind political correctness is that [white] individual autonomy and freedom are more valuable than [minority] group rights to be free from discrimination. Within this discourse, van Dijk (1992) maintains the white majority present themselves as being victimised by political correctness, as being discriminated against and being disadvantaged by unfair privileges bestowed on minorities.

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In the aftermath of the Lawrence inquiry, activist scholar, Bourne (2001, p. 18) documented assorted claims of ‘political correctness gone mad’ from critics opposed to substantive reforms instigated by the Macpherson report (1999). The populist circular arguments have been used to powerful effect in shutting down informed policy debate in favour of recycled rhetoric about individual rights.

Critical theorist, Wilson (1996, p. 6) explains:

The genius of using a term like political correctness was that people would never declare themselves politically correct, so it was virtually impossible to counter the conservative attacks when a culture of soundbites defied the kind of analysis needed to refute the presumption that political correctness existed.

Claims of political correctness, he suggests, are an attempt to silence dissent and block progressive reform.

In summary, discourses with their roots in western libertarian ideas favour the rights of the individual over collective interests and rights-based discourses.

Racism within this standpoint is the outcome of “wayward individuals” and not the product of systemic inherited disadvantage as a result of colonisation and/or slavery. Efforts to address racial disparities from this standpoint should therefore not compromise white privilege but instead, there is a need to focus on the purported endemic failure of minorities to take responsibility for themselves and their children.