In the 18th and 19th centuries European thinkers assumed the world’s known diverse populations could be classified as ‘races’. Marked by perceived physical differences, races were believed to have unalterable social and psychological characteristics. These ideas supported hierarchical notions of European (white Caucasian) superiority over other races.
Twentieth-century advances in scientific knowledge, particularly about genetics, challenged racial explanations for human diversity. Most social and physical scientists now argue that ‘races’ are socially rather than biologically constructed. Ideas about race emerge in particular times and places. They reflect subjective beliefs about perceived differences rather than inherent distinctions.
Ethnicity is a word derived from the ancient Greek term ethnos, which typically meant a ‘people’ or ‘nation’. From the 1970s it increasingly replaced ‘race’ as a way of describing and classifying group differences.
Ethnicity refers to a sense of cultural affiliation and common descent. All peoples develop particular ways of living in their social environments. A consciousness of ethnicity often emerges when groups come into contact with others and cultural differences are perceived between them.
It is sometimes said that before the arrival of Lieutenant James Cook, there were no Māori in New Zealand. As the only inhabitants of the country, they referred to other iwi and hapū, but did not have a collective term for themselves. Once Europeans arrived the existing people needed to distinguish themselves from the new arrivals. Māori originally meant usual or normal. So they called themselves tangata māori (normal people), as distinct from tangata mā (white people), tangata pora (strange people) or Pākehā. European settlers originally called the indigenous people Indians, New Zealanders or natives. ‘Māori’ only emerged as a term used by Pākehā in the 1840s.
Eventually the distinctions of Māori and Pākehā became important for state policy, and official classifications were developed. Early New Zealand census statistics were based on a racial assessment of blood ties. In 1916 respondents were asked to state their race, and in 1936 they were encouraged to define their race by fractions of blood. All ethnicities apart from Māori and European were described as ‘race aliens’.
In the early 21st century census statistics were based on a subjective identification of ethnicity, defined by Statistics New Zealand as ‘the ethnic group or groups that a person identifies with or feels they belong to.’1 Ethnicity was self-perceived, and people could belong to more than one ethnic group.
An ethnic group is defined by Statistics New Zealand as having the following characteristics:
In New Zealand, as in most societies, racial or ethnic labels are often applied to diverse sets of people in stereotypical fashion. These labels sometimes support ethnocentric judgements about the normality and superiority of ‘our’ way of doing things in contrast to ‘theirs’. Such beliefs can translate into discriminatory actions which influence inequalities between ethnic groups.
Who gets what, when and how are the questions to be explored when examining equality and inequality. The answers reveal the differences in people’s share of resources. Resources vary over time and place, and between cultures. Globally, distinctions between rich and poor countries are very visible. Some people lack sufficient food, water and shelter to sustain life.
These conditions are rare in affluent societies like New Zealand. Researchers are more concerned with describing relative poverty – relative disparities in resources like income or housing.
There is considerable debate about how best to assess the distribution of relative poverty. However, the key indicators of people’s capability to enjoy an ‘average lifestyle’ are:
Some individuals and groups cannot afford more than the absolute necessities, and have a limited ability to engage in activities such as recreation or time with family.
There are other factors which affect equality and may cut across ethnicity. These include age, generation, gender, disabilities, socio-economic status, sexual preference and regional differences.
Ethnicity and inequality overlap in the formation of ethnic minorities. Minorities are relatively powerless because they lack numbers, economic resources and political influence. In New Zealand there was both an indigenous minority, the Māori people, and immigrant minorities – largely non-European migrants.
Originally a majority controlling all the land and fisheries, by the end of the 19th century Māori were a minority suffering considerable inequality. Rapid loss of Māori land and a failure to implement or recognise protections under the Treaty of Waitangi severely hurt their economic and social status. Exposure to European diseases led to depopulation and poor health.
However, it is difficult to say with accuracy exactly how unequal Māori were in material terms. Until 1926 Māori censuses consisted of a mere head-count, and there was no full integration of the census until 1951. Even in 1945 about three-quarters of the Māori population lived in rural areas, where they had an economic and social system with high levels of non-market activities and hapū or whānau support. This makes it difficult to judge their real standard of living, in comparison with the small-town and urban Pākehā community which was fully part of the capitalist world.
There were striking differences in health status and life expectancy for Māori and Pākehā. This reflected both differences in material conditions and Māori lack of immunity to European diseases. As late as 1950–52 the gap between Māori and non-Māori females for life expectancy at birth was 14 years – for males it was 16 years.
The first registrar of old-age pensions, Edmund Mason, argued that the ‘inclusion of aboriginal natives, on equal terms’ was ‘undesirable or at least, unnecessary. Whether aid to Maoris should be given in kind only … is an open question, but it is by all argued that the claims and needs of a Maori living in Maori fashion, are much less than those of a European, and that a marked distinction should be made.’1
Housing conditions for Māori were inferior to conditions experienced by most Pākehā. Surveys of Māori housing in the late 1930s noted that Māori rural dwellings commonly lacked a toilet and running water, and had crowded sleeping quarters and poor ventilation. Different cultural patterns and an expectation that extended family would live together partly explain some of these factors. Yet there is no doubt that at least until the Second World War levels of health, housing and monetary income were considerably lower for Māori than for the rest of the population.
With respect to political rights, Māori men (and later women) did have the right to vote, and from 1867 had Māori representatives in the four Māori seats. Relative to population this was roughly equal to Pākehā, but this form of representation marginalised them. Māori did not receive equal state benefits. Old-age pensions were theoretically available to Māori under the 1898 act, but in practice their claims were harshly judged and payment was two-thirds of the European rate. Discrimination continued in the payment of benefits until it was finally ended by the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945.
Apart from Māori, the other major non-European minority up to 1945 were Asian people, especially Chinese and Indians. Chinese had first arrived in numbers during the 1860s gold rushes, and Indians came in during and immediately after the First World War.
Indian migrants were British subjects by virtue of India’s membership of the British Empire. This gave them some protection against strict immigration control and denial of citizen rights in New Zealand. Chinese, however, were officially prescribed as foreign ‘race aliens’. They could not become naturalised New Zealand citizens (from 1908 to 1952) and had to pay a poll tax (between 1881 and 1944) if they were allowed to enter the country. They were not able to vote or participate in political arenas until 1952, were excluded from state employment, and were barred from entering many professional occupations.
Both Indians and Chinese were unable to receive old-age pensions from 1898 until 1936. Unlike Māori, they were seen as too culturally and racially different to be assimilated. The result was scattered, small populations, whose individual relations with other groups varied over time and in different places. As visible ethnic minorities they were generally forced to rely on their own resources and adopt a low political profile. They lived in their own communities and had their own social gatherings.
From the 1920s until the 1950s many Indians worked as scrub-cutters. It was tough work which other New Zealanders avoided; the hours were very long, and the workers lived in tents or one-room corrugated-iron huts. Visiting one such hut, C. F. Andrews wrote that ‘there was not an inch of spare room in the hut: we were all packed like sardines in a tin, with a fire in one corner and a room full of smoke.’1
Yet some individuals in both groups established successful niches in the New Zealand economy, especially as market gardeners and greengrocers – so they may not have been greatly worse off in material terms than other working-class New Zealanders. But their social and political standing was very different.
European settlers, mostly from Britain, rapidly became the dominant majority after the 1850s. They did, however, contain ethnic divisions. English, Scots, Irish and Welsh migrants displayed cultural, regional and religious differences, and their histories in Britain were marked by divisions and conflict. In New Zealand this was most often expressed in hostility towards the Irish, especially Catholics. There was some discrimination against Irish Catholics in recruiting migrants, and in employment.
The Catholic community believed they were treated unequally because taxes supported a secular free school system, but not Catholic schools. New Zealanders of an Irish Catholic background were found less often in the high-status professions and more often in the prison population. There was a tendency for Catholics to live close to one another, for instance around the Barbadoes Street Catholic cathedral in Christchurch.
On the other hand the shared interests of settlers from Britain and Ireland in controlling resources in New Zealand, especially land, and the relative advantage of their elites in shaping a new state and nation, often transcended these differences.
After the Second World War the demand for labour in the cities led many Māori to move from the country into the city. In 1966, 38% of Māori lived in rural areas – down from 74% in 1945. In 1986 only 21% of Māori lived rurally, with 57% in the main urban areas. Inequalities of income, occupation and housing became more obvious once Māori and Pākehā were in the same location. Moving to the city also cut Māori off from many aspects of the informal economy such as exchange of kaimoana (seafood).
A shortage of workers saw the reintroduction of assisted-passage schemes for British migrants, which lasted from 1947 to 1973, and the recruitment of smaller numbers from the Netherlands and southern Europe.
Immigrants from the Pacific, closer to home but less familiar to Pākehā, were also encouraged to enter the country. Workers, and sometimes also their families, from Samoa, Tonga and other Pacific islands arrived in increasing numbers from the 1950s.
European and Pacific workers usually had different qualifications and skills, and often did different kinds of jobs. Some European migrants did encounter prejudice. Yet the contrast in public perceptions and treatment of these groups was striking. Echoing earlier treatment of ethnic minorities, ‘Islanders’ were stigmatised and scapegoated when economic conditions deteriorated in the 1970s. Pacific people were negatively labelled overstayers. Many with short-term work visas were subjected to ‘dawn raids’ by the police (in 1974), even though European migrants were more frequently working on expired visas.
In the 2006 census there was a big increase in the number of people who described their ethnicity as New Zealanders – 11.1% compared to 2.4% in 2001. Although this was not a tickable category on the census form, 11.1% of the population described themselves as ‘New Zealanders’.1 Those who did so were more common in the South Island than the North, especially in rural provincial areas such as the West Coast, Marlborough and Southland. The lowest proportion was in Auckland. Self-identified New Zealanders were also predominantly middle-aged and born in New Zealand. A publicity campaign about the New Zealander category before the 2006 census probably explains its popularity, which was fleeting – in 2013 only 1.6% of respondents chose it.
Wide-ranging immigration legislation and citizenship policies introduced since the mid-1980s significantly altered migrant flows into New Zealand. The new policies were based on the assumption that those best fitted to contribute to the country’s growth and prosperity should be recruited from wherever they were available, rather than on the basis of country of origin. Market forces became the guiding principle for entry. Prospective migrants now had to possess sufficient skills, qualifications, wealth, language proficiency and health to apply for permanent residence. This system led to a significant widening of the ethnic backgrounds of new migrants, although it still favoured migrants from ‘developed’ countries.
The United Kingdom remained a major source of skilled and business migrants, but many different nationalities were represented in the immigrant flows. Large numbers flowed in from various parts of Asia, along with people from Africa and South America.
In 2013 the census revealed a population with considerable ethnic and cultural diversity. Over half a million people claimed Māori ethnicity (14.9% of the population). People of Asian ethnicity were 11.8% and Pacific people 7.4%. Together these three large non-European ethnic groups made up almost 35% of all New Zealand residents. This diversity was most visible in Auckland, where over 48% of the population claimed Māori, Asian or Pacific ethnicity. It was far less apparent in South Island provincial areas. This new level of diversity, especially in the city, made inequalities between ethnicities a matter of major social concern.
There are dangers in making overgeneralised statements about levels of ethnic disparity. Wide-ranging comparisons are often made between ethnic categories, comparing Māori and non-Māori, or Pacific and Asian people with Europeans. But the mix of success and hardship among these peoples is complex. The degrees of disadvantage within ethnic categories – for instance rural and urban Māori, local and foreign-born Pacific people, or long-settled and newly arrived Asian migrants – can be just as significant as those between them.
It is also important to consider the influences of factors such as socio-economic status, age, gender, regional differences and disability.
However, average comparisons between ethnic groups are a useful start, and highlight overall disparities.
After the Second World War the difference between Māori and non-Māori incomes lessened. In 1951 Māori aged 15 and over earned on average two-thirds of the income of non-Māori. In 1986 Māori income was over three-quarters of the mean income of non-Māori.
From the 1980s extensive economic restructuring involving major job losses, shifts to user-pays for public services, and wide-ranging benefit cuts, touched the lives of all New Zealanders. However, Māori and Pacific people were particularly disadvantaged by these policies, and during the 1990s differences between Māori and non-Māori incomes increased again. The gap then decreased in the 2000s. There was a reduction in unemployment among Māori, and significant improvement in the earnings of Māori women. The income of Māori men relative to non-Māori hardly changed from 1991 to 2006.
In 2013 the median (middle value in range of high to low numbers) income of Māori was 78.9% of the national median income. In 2013 Pacific people’s median income was lower than the Māori figure, at 69% of the national median income. Māori were overrepresented among those in persistent poverty in the New Zealand Survey of Family, Income and Employment (SoFIE) 2002-2009, a longitudinal study of individual deprivation. 22% of Maori and Pacific children in this study were identified as likely to experience persistent deprivation.
In 2015 28% of children were living in low income homes. Fourteen percent of them were living in material hardship and 8% were living in severe poverty. The Children’s Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft commented that “We are in real danger of creating pockets of third generation ingrained poverty… We can’t accept that.”
Lower incomes mean that people struggle to meet the needs of their families. In a 2010 quality-of-life survey, 11% of Pākehā, 13% of Asian, 18% of Māori and 28% of Pacific people said that they did not have enough money to cover everyday needs.
Despite the popular image of Asian immigrants as relatively wealthy, this is far from the case when particular groups are considered. Many Hong Kong Chinese, Taiwanese and Koreans, for example, were unemployed following their arrival in New Zealand, and many moved into self-employment because they could not find suitable jobs. A large number of Asians resident in New Zealand at any time are students, and others are low-paid casual workers or in small family businesses. This in part explains their relatively low median income in 2013 of $20,100 (compared with $22,500 for Māori and $30,900 for Europeans). In 2013, 27.2% of the Asian population earned $5,000 or less, compared with 16.3% for the whole population, 18.6% for Māori and 26.9% for Pacific people. Asians were not particularly well represented among the rich in 2013. While 28.3% of the total population earned over $50,000, only 18% of the Asian community did so.
Inequalities in income are partly a reflection of involvement in paid work and the different occupational status of the ethnic groups.
Māori and Pacific people are more likely to be unemployed than other groups. Among 15–29-year-olds in 2013 unemployment levels were 15.6% for Māori and 14.7% for Pacific people, compared with 10.2% for the whole population. Among people aged 30–64 both Māori and Pacific people were almost twice as likely to be unemployed as the whole population. Asians aged 30–64 were much less likely to be unemployed.
Both Māori and Pacific people came to New Zealand cities largely from jobs on the land or in fishing. Many Māori had been in the casual rural workforce, often working seasonally in jobs such as shearing. When they migrated to the city they often moved into industrial labouring jobs. The effects of this background were still visible in occupational patterns in 2013. Among the top white-collar occupations (managers and professionals) both Māori and Pacific people were markedly under-represented. While 20.2% of European workers were managers, 13.1% of Māori and 8.9% of Pacific people had that role. Māori and Pacific people were under-represented among professionals by a third (Māori) and a half (Pacific), although in both communities women were far better represented than men.
At the other end of the occupational hierarchy, both ethnic groups were strongly over-represented among blue-collar workers. While only 9.7% of Europeans were manual labourers, about 20% of Māori and Pacific people were involved in this work. They were also overrepresented in the machinery operation group. Māori and Pacific people – especially women – were also well represented among community and personal-service occupations such as carers, health workers and the hospitality industry.
In 2013 Asians were strongly represented among professional jobs, especially sales representatives. They were reasonably represented among managers, but were not commonly found in machine operation jobs. In terms of occupational status Asian people in New Zealand were doing comparatively well in salaried professional and managerial work.
In 2010 the New Zealand government issued a Tertiary Education Strategy. Among its priorities was improving the number of Māori and Pacific students enjoying success in higher education. To this end the Tertiary Education Commission had special equity funding to improve the achievement of Māori and Pacific students, along with those who were disabled.
The concentration of Māori and Pacific people in unskilled work, and the representation of Asian and European people in white-collar jobs, was largely a reflection of their educational qualifications. In 2013 one third of Māori aged 15 and over had no school qualifications, as did more than three out of 10 Pacific people. This contrasted with one in eight Asians and fewer than a quarter of Europeans.
Asian people in New Zealand aged 15 and over had the highest proportion of people with a bachelor’s degree (23.7%). This was three times the proportion of Māori with degrees and almost four times the Pacific level. The proportion of Asians with a degree was almost double the rate for the population as a whole. This partly reflected the stringent immigration requirements for Asians who arrived after the 1980s, but was also due to cultural traditions that emphasise the value of education.
Many Māori and Pacific people and other members of ethnic minorities live in inferior housing compared to the majority. This is partly explained by their lower incomes, fewer educational qualifications (limiting employment prospects) and higher unemployment rates. Social barriers in local housing markets are also significant.
There was a general decline in the number of New Zealand residents owning or partly owning (as mortgagees) their own homes from 2001 through to 2013. However, Māori and Pacific people were significantly less likely to own, rather than rent, their homes, and this trend consolidated over this period. In 2013, 28.2% of Māori households and 18.5% of Pacific households owned their homes. By comparison 56.8% of European households and 34.8% of Asian households owned their homes.
Māori and Pacific homes were more crowded. In 2013 almost 24% of Pacific households had two or more families living in them, compared with 7.5% of the total population. 12% of Māori households were comprised of more than one family.
Some Māori found that the houses they rented or owned were not well-designed for their needs and cultural traditions. The properties did not have large common areas which could function like a mini-marae and accommodate visiting whānau, and there was sometimes no clear separation between the kitchen and the laundry (infringing traditional taboos).
Ethnic minorities, with close-knit family, tribal and religious ties, often choose to live together when shifting to urban areas. Arrivals with limited resources may also face discrimination. While New Zealand has no ghettos comparable to those in many overseas cities, there are clear signs of residential segregation between ethnic groups. In Auckland, for example, two-thirds of the Manukau ward’s residents were Māori and Pacific, while over half of people living in the central business district were Asian. Houses on the North Shore were worth considerably more on average than those in South Auckland.
Overcrowding and substandard housing sometimes led to poorer health among Māori and Pacific people. These groups have much higher rates of hospital admissions attributed to overcrowding than other ethnic groups. Pacific and (to a lesser extent) Māori people had significantly higher obesity rates, and smoked more, while Asians had significantly lower levels of obesity and smoking. In 2014/15, 32% of Māori and 23% of Pacific people exhibited potentially hazardous alcohol drinking patterns, 18% of Europeans and other ethnic groups and 5% of Asians.
One of the diseases most feared by people until the introduction of antibiotics was tuberculosis, sometimes called the ‘white plague’. But tuberculosis has not disappeared and remains an illness associated with poverty. Between 1995 and 2004 the incidence of tuberculosis among Māori was about 10 times the level found in Pākehā New Zealanders.
Such conditions helped produce lower life expectancy. In 2012-14 life expectancy at birth was 7.3 years lower for Māori than non-Māori males, and 6.9 years lower for Māori women than non-Māori women. The gap had narrowed since the early 1950s, but it remained significant. (Figures for Pacific and Asian people were not available.) Age-standardised death rates were significantly higher for Māori and Pacific than Pākehā or Asian people. Asians had the lowest rate of all.
Māori, in particular, are strongly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. In 2014 Māori comprised just over half the prison population and over 40% of all criminal apprehensions. Of women in prison, over 60% were Māori. On an age-standardised basis, the Māori imprisonment rate in the early 2000s was 514 per 100,000 – compared with 152 per 100,000 for the whole population.
These figures reflect complex factors, ranging from historical and current bias in the operation of the justice system to other forms of inequality faced by Māori, such as lack of education, high levels of unemployment, and poorer living conditions. Age profiles, socio-economic status and media stereotyping also need to be considered.
A combination of natural increase (births minus deaths) among their comparatively youthful populations, and projected immigration levels, is projected to increase the numbers of Māori, Pacific and Asian people in New Zealand in the decades after 2010. Māori, 14.9% of the population in 2013, are projected to be 19.5% by 2038. The Pacific community will increase from 7.4% to 10.9%, and the Asian community from 11.8% to 20.8%. By then just over 50% of the population will be of these ethnicities. The overall number of people from Africa and the Middle East is also expected to rise. In contrast, a small decline is predicted in Pākehā numbers due to an ageing population and probable continued emigration. Gaps in the local workforce due to New Zealanders living overseas are likely to be filled by incoming migrants.
New Zealand’s beauty business has been criticised for not lowering the barriers to all cultures. In 2009 a former Miss New Zealand claimed that the New Zealand Next Top Model reality-television competition ‘did not represent New Zealand’s diverse culture’. Her comments received support from bloggers: ‘No ethnic diversity … these girls are pretty, but they all look like Supre [clothing] store girls’ and ‘They look like clones. Where are all the Maori girls?’1
As a result of increasing ethnic diversity, life in New Zealand will become even more cosmopolitan, especially in the major cities. The impact of these changes on patterns of ethnic disadvantage will remain heavily influenced by regional and global economic and political forces. Much will depend on the rigidity of boundaries between ethnic and racial groups.
In the early 21st century there were many signs that New Zealanders were already enjoying the variety of experiences that ethnic diversity offers. Increasing numbers chose to claim multiple ethnic origins and identities when asked to fill in official forms. Rising levels of cross-cultural intermarriage and partnership, mixing of different ethnicities in workplaces and neighbourhoods, and the blending of diverse family, church and voluntary association activities, all point to the breaking down of ethnic boundaries. The positive contributions of indigenous and immigrant minorities in many areas of New Zealand life also received more recognition.
In 2017 Auckland held the following cultural festivals: Tāmaki Herenga Waka Festival of Māori history, heritage and culture (January); Lantern Festival (February), New Zealand’s largest Chinese festival; Pacific Islands-themed Pasifika Festival (March); ASB Polyfest (March), claimed to be the biggest Polynesian dance festival in the world; and the Diwali Festival celebrating traditional and contemporary Indian culture (October). These events are now not only part of the annual calendar in Auckland, but also in other cities around the country.
In the early 21st century there were signs of real progress towards greater ethnic equality. Since the 1996 introduction of a mixed-member proportional representation system for national politics, indigenous and ethnic political representatives have increased in number and prominence. After the 2017 election, 27 members of Parliament identified themselves as Māori (23% compared to 13% in 1996), seven as Pacific (6% compared to 3% in 1996) and seven as Asian (6% compared to 1% in 1996).
Public policy in education, health and social development emphasised and invested in improving outcomes for disadvantaged ethnic groups. Since the mid-1990s Māori and Pacific peoples experienced faster improvements than the whole population in life expectancy, participation in tertiary education, employment and hourly earnings. Growing numbers of Māori and Pacific people were joining the urban middle class. Such trends reflected small but significant shifts in the balance of power between dominant and less privileged groups. However, substantial progress is needed to reduce inequalities if New Zealand is not to suffer long-term tension between its ethnic groups.
Callister, Paul. Special measures to reduce ethnic disadvantage in New Zealand: an examination of their role. Wellington: Institute of Policy Studies, 2007.
Cormack, Donna, and Carey Robson. Ethnicity, national identity and ‘New Zealanders’: considerations for monitoring Māori health and ethnic inequalities. Wellington: Te Rōpū Rangahau Hauora a Eru Pōmare, 2010.
Diverse communities: exploring the migrant and refugee experience in New Zealand. Wellington: Ministry of Social Development, 2008.
Fairbairn-Dunlop, Peggy, and Gabrielle Sisifo Makisi, eds. Making our place: growing up PI in New Zealand. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 2003.
Ghosh, Gautam, and Jacqueline Leckie, eds. Asians and the new multiculturalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2015.
Pearson, David. A dream deferred: the origins of ethnic conflict in New Zealand. Wellington: Allen & Unwin in association with Port Nicholson Press, 1990.
Salesa, Damon. Island time: New Zealand’s Pacific futures. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2017.
Spoonley, Paul. Racism and ethnicity. Rev. ed. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Williams, Melissa. Panguru and the city: kāinga tahi, kāinga rua: an urban migration history. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2015.