Racism and race-baiting

Three weeks ago, the ‘Roastbusters’ revelations initiated a public outcry and an intense discussion of an issue of vital importance to the working class – the second-class status of women, and the culture that surrounds and promotes that inferior status, especially the tolerance of violence against women.

The debates begun back then in the bourgeois media continue down to the present. These debates have tended to centre on one of the consequences of the public outcry: the temporary suspension of the RadioLive talk-back show Willie and JT. When the hosts Willie Jackson and John Tamihere took a call from a woman identified as Amy, their jeering, sniggering dismissal of her claim to have narrowly avoided being raped herself fueled the public outrage over police inaction on the rape complaints. Advertisers on the show, prompted by blogger Giovanni Tiso who was offended by the interview, began publicly dissociating themselves from the show and withdrawing their advertising, leading  RadioLive to can the show.

Some columnists and bloggers see in this outcome the chill hand of censorship and ‘rule of the mob’. I have answered these arguments in an earlier post.

Donna Awatere Huata

Donna Awatere Huata

Recently a new argument has been thrown into the debate: the accusation of racism. Jackson and Tamihere are Maori. Two other radio hosts who were not Maori, Andrew Fagan and Sean Plunket, made similar misogynist remarks but remain on air. Therefore, the argument goes, the outcry against Jackson and Tamihere was motivated by racism. This idea is advanced in the blog “Desperately Seeking Amy” by Donna Awatere Huata, author in 1982 of ‘Maori Sovereignty’ and Member of Parliament for the right-wing ACT party from 1996 to 2003. According to the New Zealand Herald, Mana Party leader Annette Sykes has endorsed Awatere Huata’s position.

Awatere Huata writes, “How did an issue involving mainly white girls, white boys, white police, white politicians, and white RadioLive officials end up with only two scalps, both of them Maori. Two other RadioLive hosts Sean Plunkett and Andrew Fagan’s comments were worse, but they haven’t been forced to fall on their swords. As I said, Celebrate, We’re White, Tonight!”

She writes of the blogger Giovanni Tiso, who initiated a campaign to get RadioLive advertisers to withdraw, in these terms: “Giovanni Tiso must be quietly pleased that a few well placed barbs got Willie and JT off air. Such an outstanding result for so little effort and to top it all off, celebrated by half a page in the NZ Herald no less. Could life get any better. And of course none of it was racially based, it just so happened that you overlooked the Sean and Andrew diatribes and will (of course) get onto your campaign to get rid of the police responsible for allowing the rapists to carry on raping for another two years after the first complaint. But what with the interviews, the adulation and the euphoria that comes when you rip the scalps off a couple of lippy Maori you just haven’t had the time. …Yes. Giovanni. Let’s Celebrate, We’re White, Tonight! It’s a Celebration!”

When Tiso responds, pointing out, among other things, the fact that Fagan’s comments were made after he had sent his letters to the advertisers, that he did denounce Fagan’s remarks as well as the police inaction, and that he targeted the RadioLive directors as well as the two hosts, Awatere Huata simply repeats her accusation, and her little taunt: “There was nothing to stop you sending the advertisers an addendum adding Sean and Andrew to the list of those whose advertising you wanted blackballed… The fact that you ran out of time/puff/rage is why I asked the question as to why is it that an event involving mainly white people, ended up with two Maori scalps….Which is why those who are white and involved have every right to Celebrate, We’re White. Tonight.”

The term for this line of argument is race-baiting. Race-baiting is accusing an opponent of acting from racist motives as a way of intimidating them into silence and evading the arguments they raise.  Race-baiting functions in a similar way to red-baiting (accusing your opponent of being a communist), which was and still is a common enough feature of bourgeois political debate. (See the red-baiting accusations against British Labour Party leader Milliband for a current example).  Race-baiting, like red-baiting, appeals to emotion and sensationalism rather than to a reasoned examination of the facts. That is the purpose of Awatere Huata’s frequent repetitions of the little taunt “Let’s Celebrate, We’re White, Tonight!”

Racism and racial inequality is a scourge for the working class. Racist ideas infect the whole of capitalist society, take many different forms, and can certainly infect people who have declared themselves opponents of racism. But anyone who takes racism seriously and fights against it, also treats the accusation of racist behaviour seriously, and does not make the charge lightly. Frivolous and unfounded accusations of racism, made for the purpose of point-scoring, self-advancement, and evading the real issues at stake – which in this case was the question of rape  – merely demean the seriousness of the charge of racism itself.

Police inaction on rape did not go unaddressed

Police inaction on rape did not go unaddressed.
Auckland march against ‘rape culture’ Nov 16
Photo: James Robb

There is simply no evidence of racist motivation on the part of Giovanni Tiso. If there is a racist bias in the way RadioLive treated the four broadcasters, that is well beyond Tiso’s powers to affect one way or the other. Are we seriously expected to hold Giovanni Tiso, an individual with no power or authority and only a computer and Email programme at his disposal, responsible for the fact that no one has yet been held to account for the police inaction? The absurdity of this position is mind-boggling to anyone who thinks about the actual situation. Nor does the suggestion that this was “an issue involving mainly white girls, white boys, white police, white politicians, and white RadioLive officials” tally with the known facts of the case. But race-baiting doesn’t promote thinking, and doesn’t concern itself with the facts.

Race-baiting is poison to the working class movement. This particular manifestation of it casts a shadow on what has been up to now a very fruitful and interesting political discussion. It should be rejected with contempt.

2 responses to “Racism and race-baiting

  1. The piece was scurrilous, but there are questions behind it that are worth exploring. I consider RadioLive equally contemptible as Willie and JT in all this, but the station managed to insulate itself from the consequences of the Amy interview by removing the pair. And of course there is no such thing in this country as ‘happening to be Maori’, so it’s worth at least considering whether these two particular Maori broadcasters were scapegoated. I was sorry not to get asked that question by the media (I was a couple of times, but it didn’t make the final edit), so at least Donna’s blog gave me an opportunity to attempt to account for my role.

    As for Annette Sykes’ comment, I was disappointed that Bryce Edwards dropped it in the Herald piece without a link to the discussion (as it was a public FB thread: https://www.facebook.com/AnnetteForWaiariki/posts/10202350639384469?comment_id=70534038).

    • Thanks for the link to the Annette Sykes comment and discussion. I searched for it before I posted but couldn’t find it. I certainly remain open to the possibility that there was an element of racist scapegoating of Jackson and Tamihere by the RadioLive directors, however I think even that is far from proven. I seems more likely to me that accidental factors to do with the timing, their respective public profiles etc were the main explanation for the unequal treatment given to Plunket and Fagan (e.g. in the case of Sean Plunket, the fact that his early comments largely escaped public attention, and then he disappeared on holiday). The main falsehood in Awatere Huata’s piece is to place responsibility for these matters on the shoulders of those fighting to bring the discussion on rape culture into the public arena. No, we were not strong enough (yet!) to hold the police concerned to account – but does that mean that we are responsible for the continuation of rape culture in the police? Annette Sykes makes the same error in her comments, although to be fair, there is not the same element of race-baiting taunting in her comments. Hers is a reasonable argument, even though it heads in the wrong direction.

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