I wrote this essay for an assignment last year in my sociology paper, but I thought this would be a good piece to post as it expresses a lot of my perspective, my thought process as well as the things I am learning about.
The New Zealand prison population reflects an overrepresentation of Maori in our prisons. Maori make up only 14.6% of our total population, but represent 51% of our prison population (Wright, 2016). Although this may be a simple reflection of Maori involvement in crime, the application of sociological analysis can help us to acknowledge the presence of societal contributions. It is important to consider both if we are to fully understand this overrepresentation. There are three social influences that I believe have contributed to this. This includes the colonisation of New Zealand, racial discrimination, and the poverty that has come as a result.
Colonialism means that one ethnic group needs to succumb to the more dominant ethnic group, which is often done through the process of oppression. Oppression is used by the coloniser to suppress the beliefs, values and traditions of the indigenous culture (Gabbidon, 2010). If those within the indigenous culture refuse to assimilate (that is, give up their own culture to fully ascribe to the new culture), they are subject to alienation, while those who have assimilated lose sense of their cultural identity. When a colonial society has been established, the coloniser remains superior to the colonised, and therefore this assumption is sustained over generations through socialisation (Gabbidon, 2010). Latter generations receive this burden their ancestors imposed on them, therefore the impact of colonisation is still in effect. Alienation within this context can be used to support the overrepresentation of Maori in our prisons, as exclusion from mainstream society and the deprivation of their culture and land can result in criminal behaviour (White & Habibis, 2005).
It is important to note that the terms ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are socially constructed, and that the groups we are categorized into are not based on biological information, but society’s perception of these groups (Webster, 2007). Humans share 99.99% of their genetic makeup, thus we cannot conclude that violence or crime is a trait of a particular ethnicity, but more so a result of the way they are perceived and treated within society (Gabbidon, 2010; Vodanovich, 2013). With this information, we can conclude that the alienation that has resulted from colonisation could in fact be a major contributor to both the overrepresentation of Maori in prisons, and the likelihood that they will be involved in crime. Since the beginning of colonisation, the Maori prison population has consistently risen; between the 1930’s and 1950’s the percentage rose from 11 to 40 (McIntosh & Goldmann, 2017). To look at this evidence neutrally, it could be a reflection of the Maori population itself increasing or the establishment of a stricter justice system. With that observation aside, when we compare this to the European representation of 33% of the prison population, there is the possibility there is another process at play here (StatsNZ, 2012).
This is where we need to acknowledge the role that racial discrimination plays in the overrepresentation of Maori in prisons. Because race is one of many ways that society ranks individuals, the concept of ‘race’ becomes ‘racism’ when it is used an excuse for the social, cultural and political exclusion of ethnic groups (Vodanovich, 2013). Colonial societies are heavily racist, one might even say that the feeling of superiority is what drives colonisation itself and could also be recognised as the creator of the “criminal” stigmatisation of Maori prevalent within our society.
The perception of ethnic groups is maintained predominantly through the media. This is because the elite have the power to decide what news to report, and align the content with mainstream beliefs (which they themselves have created) to reproduce these perceptions to a mass audience (Barnes, 2017; Schmidt, 2017). Controlling images within the media have been used to shape the public’s perception of Maori, especially to develop the association of Maori as being violent (Norris, 2017; McCreanor et al., 2014). Common sense understandings are both created and fuelled by the sensationalisation of violent crimes, encouraging the public to believe that crime rates are increasing, even when evidence proves otherwise (McIntosh & Goldmann, 2017; Schmidt, 2017). This is how the media contributes to the maintenance of colonial hegemony (McCreanor et al., 2014; Schmidt, 2017). These common sense understandings are a problem because they contribute to the stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination of Maori, which results in minimal opportunities for Maori. This affects their social interactions, levels of employment and their experience in the criminal justice system (McCreanor et al., 2014).
There is research that supports that ethnic minorities receive harsher treatment within the criminal justice system, and that even at the point of apprehension, they are overrepresented (White & Habibis, 2005). Braithwaite (1979) discusses the relationship between class and crime and how the same applies to those within the lower class. He suggests that middle class people “have more highly developed skills in manipulating such negotiation processes than do the lower classes”. Class is important to acknowledge within this context as a higher class usually means more cultural capital; the knowledge and understanding of the dominant group within society (Schmidt, 2017). In relation to crime, cultural capital may be used to negotiate with a police officer during apprehension, thus those lacking cultural capital are more likely to be arrested. Police target “suspect populations” for surveillance and intervention (which is often young individuals from the lower class who spend a lot of time on the street), resulting in over-policing (White & Habibis, 2005; Webster, 2007). It could be argued whether or not this implies institutional racism (conscious or subconscious), or if it is simply due to the large representation of Maori within this category.
I would like to discuss colonisation and racial discrimination on the terms of being contributors to Maori poverty within New Zealand, and poverty in turn being a primary driver of crime (White & Habibis, 2005; McIntosh & Goldmann, 2017). Our New Zealand prisons are primarily punitive and lack an effective process of rehabilitation. In 2015, 36.5% of those released from prison, were reimprisoned within 24 months of their release (Johnston, 2016). This is a major issue because not only does it contribute to the overrepresentation, it further excludes an individual from mainstream society, which is largely why they ended up in prison in the first place, and why they are even more likely to reoffend (McIntosh & Goldmann, 2017). Statistics show that Maori and Pasifika are overrepresented in poverty, with crime rates being higher within these poorer communities (McIntosh & Goldmann, 2017). This is where we can bring in the concept of class once again, as inequalities and poverty are often indicators of class. White and Habibis (2005) state that “difficulties experienced by youth ethnic minorities is inextricably linked to their class situation”. A youth’s class is usually determined by that of their parent’s, which also suggests that youth experience social and economic exclusion based on something beyond their control (White & Habibis, 2005). The children of prisoners in New Zealand feel the effects of this burden, often by being excluded from “central public institutions such as healthcare, housing, and political participation” (McIntosh & Goldmann, 2017). Continuous exclusion of minority groups will not stop the crime, it will only drive it. Marginalised individuals are expected to fit into mainstream society, but are deprived of the institutions that will supply them with the cultural capital necessary for it.
Poverty on its own is not a driver of crime, it is a consequence of the colonisation and racial discrimination that has disallowed them to fit into society’s expectation of a “moral” human being. Therefore, I have come to conclude that colonial superiority has created a seemingly endless cycle within our society, which has contributed to the overrepresentation of Maori in prisons. Those who feel superior attempt to colonise those who they see as inferior, which in turn maintains hegemonic power; superiority fuels racial discrimination; racial discrimination contributes to social exclusion thus leading to poverty; poverty and inequalities then enforce crime; criminal behaviour aligns with society’s expectations of these individuals, and therefore the cycle continues.