Laws: 'Obama isn't actually black'
Let's face it - Obama's powers of oratory and his trouncing of that grumpy old warhorse John McCain in debate after debate rather give the lie to the Klannish notion that black folks are too stupid to deserve equal rights, let alone the highest office in America.
But now the good ol' boys whose Aryan pride is threatened by the thought of a clever black man in the White House can rest easy - Radio Live talkback host Michael Laws has discovered that 'Obama isn't actually black'. Laws made his startling claim on his nine to noon talkback show last Thursday. According to the former MP and current mayor of Wanganui, Obama has 'nothing in common' with the majority of black Americans, who live 'in the ghetto'.
Laws explained that, by succeeding at university, making a career in law, and rising through the hinterland of US politics to become a Senator and then a Presidential contender, Obama had chosen to 'go white'. Obama's success was a credit to 'white' civilisation, and his journey away from blackness was a lesson to New Zealand's Maori people, as well as African Americans. 'Race doesn't really exist, class is what's important' Laws claimed. Obama, it seems, grew up in a black 'working class' family, but stopped 'being black' when he left his class origins behind.
Laws' argument that race is an irrelevant concept in Western societies like the US and New Zealand is common on Kiwi talkback radio, especially when subjects like the Treaty of Waitangi and the Maori Party come under discussion. The claims that 'we're all one nation now', that poor people with coloured skin have nobody but themselves to blame, and that state policy and funding should be 'colour-blind' almost won the 2005 election for the National Party, and probably still meet with the approval of the vast majority of white New Zealanders. This does not, of course, make them true.
But Laws' contention that people of colour who become successful in education, in their careers, or in politics are 'turning white' goes a lot further than the sort of 'one nation' populism heard so often from the mainstream right. Laws' claim implies that Western societies like the United States and New Zealand are inherently 'white' societies, that the fruits of these societies are the product of 'white' civilisation, and that people from cultures which are not 'white' must abandon their outmoded affectations if they want any sort of success in life.
Laws' arguments are, of course, nonsense. There is no such thing as 'white civilisation', anymore than there is such a thing as 'Asian civilisation'; it is doubtful whether we can even talk reliably about the existence of a 'white race', unless we want to rely on the myths of the racist right. Both the United States and New Zealand are the products of the mingling of many distinct cultures. The Maori who kickstarted market gardening and dairy farming in this country in the nineteenth century did not need to give up their language, or raze their meeting houses; the blacks who invented the styles of music that America has exported around the world were not imitating Bach or Chopin.
Laws' views on Obama, race and class divided his listeners. A number of callers were enthusiastic; one, for instance, amplified Laws' points by saying that 'all these Maoris need to learn a lesson - go white if you want to succeed in the world'. Others, though, were confused by Laws' awkward mix of meritocratic and racist rhetoric. One caller asked Laws whether National Party leader John Key was 'not a Caucasian anymore', because he had grown up in poverty before getting a good education and making large sums of money.
Michael Laws' radio show has long been unpopular with Maori. Even Willie Jackson, Laws' Maori colleague at Radio Live, has characterised him as a 'racist loony' who 'goes around stirring up hysteria against brown people'. But Laws' show is popular with many Pakeha, and Laws himself has been re-elected mayor of Wanganui by a huge margin. Wanganui was a garrison town during the New Zealand Wars, and there have always been racial tensions there. In 1995 these tensions came out into the open during the epic occupation by protesters of Moutoa Gardens, a piece of land near the centre of Wanganui which was stolen from Maori in the nineteenth century.
When I was in Wanganui for a wedding a couple of years ago, I watched an elderly, respectably dressed gentleman wander up and down the street, collecting donations for the One New Zealand Foundation, an anti-Maori outfit that publishes broadsides by Kerry Bolton, New Zealand's best known neo-nazi. I noticed that the old gent was very careful never to approach a Maori shopper with his donations tin.
Much like that elderly racist, Michael Laws lacks the courage of his beliefs. He uses phrases like 'white civilisation' and 'going white', knowing that they will resonate with the racists in his political constituency, but tries to muddy the waters with pseudo-meritocratic populism and talk about race being 'unimportant'. The result is the sort of bizarre argument we heard on Thursday morning. Surely Radio Live can do better than Laws? The man makes Karyn Hay and Andrew Fagan sound like paragons of rationality.