- The Big QuestionIs Affirmative Action Necessary to Overcome Institutional Racism?
- New Zealand: How Far We Have Come
When I was 17, I was offered a full-tuition scholarship to attend the University of Auckland in my native New Zealand. All of my hard work had paid off: I was going to study law and finance at the best university in the country. However, my scholarship was not only due to my own efforts. It was a reflection of generations of my Māori family, despite institutional discrimination, placing a heavy emphasis on education as the pathway to success. Growing up Māori in New Zealand, even being fair skinned as I am, is full of challenges. Of all ethnic groups in New Zealand, Māori statistically suffer from the lowest life expectancy, highest incarceration rates, and highest instances of poverty.
New Zealand has been active in promoting affirmative action to address the institutional racism experienced by Māori. Article 19 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 protects affirmative action, a policy that manifests in many different spheres of society. Separate Māori seats in our Parliament have been in existence for over a century, universities maintain quotas for Māori student admittance, and the government has made reparations to the Māori tribes for land theft and other crimes committed under colonization.
That is not to say that affirmative action has widespread acceptance from the wider community. A small but vocal group of right-wing activists continue to push a “one law for all” slogan and bemoan what they see as the granting of special rights to Māori. Even more insidious is the reaction within what is usually considered the liberal enclave of law school. The quota system that reserves a set number of spaces for Māori students in the law degree divides the campus. Even if a Māori student is accepted due to personal academic success, ethnic background marks him or her as a target for criticism.
I attended university in the early 2000s, and Māori faces around my law school were rare. (Given the multitude of legal issues specifically facing Māori—from litigating against the government for breaches of both historical and modern-day rights to providing advocacy for criminal justice issues, scholarships, and quotas—the system was not delivering enough Māori into the legal profession.) Fifteen years later, this trend appears to be changing. Over 300 people attended a recent Māori lawyers’ conference, half of them students. Given that there are fewer [End Page 1] than 1,000 Māori lawyers in New Zealand, 150 law students at this conference is a highly encouraging sign of just how far we have come.
Affirmative action is absolutely necessary to overcome institutional racism. In New Zealand, we often say this: For a Māori, simply getting out of bed in the morning is a political act. Affirmative action has helped me and many others like me get out of bed, receive an education, fight passionately for Māori rights, and work with those who have come before us to tear down the fabric of institutional racism.
JOSHUA HITCHCOCK is a New Zealand-based lawyer of Te Ātiawa, Ngā Māhanga ā Tairi, and Ngāti Māhanga descent.
- South Africa: Necessary but Not Sufficient
Positive discrimination, as affirmative action is called in South Africa, is essential to addressing institutional racism. It requires the state acknowledge its role in perpetrating a grossly unfair system, and it is a first step toward a system of reparations.
Two decades ago, post-apartheid South Africa put a wave of positive discrimination measures in place to support the country in its transition to democracy. These included race-based quotas for positions in state services, scholarships for learners in underrepresented fields, tough anti-discrimination legislation, and an enormous economic policy called Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) that included reduced share prices for persons of color to become owners of companies in certain industries and tax breaks for private firms hiring black employees. It made “BEE points” count toward state tenders and major contracts...