Yellow Peril by Tze Ming Mok


Are we getting our class back?

So the Herald has visited McGehan Close three bloody times now, and found what? People with jobs, who feed their children, and a strong community. In looking for 'the underclass', John Key seems to have stumbled across 'the aspirational working class.' Rather than coming off as a cut-rate Tapu Misa with more swearing (my usual register, I'm well aware), I'll just throw straight to her excellent column today, The Case of the Missing Underclass. Here's a chunk, but you may as well go read the whole thing.

The idea of an undesirable, ignorant class of people populating the underbelly of society and threatening its survival has been around since at least the 18th century, when English demographer Thomas Malthus warned against the over-production of the lower classes and encouraged them not to breed...

In 1989, American sociologist Charles Murray, who co-wrote The Bell Curve, warned of an emerging British underclass, identified, he said, by illegitimacy, violence and persistent unemployment. Murray argued the underclass was defined not so much by the degree of poverty as the kind of poverty. In other words, you had to be a particular kind of poor person to qualify.


Christopher Jencks, professor of social policy at Harvard's School of Government, wrote that the term had focused "attention on the basement of the American social system (those 'under' the rest of us), without specifying what the inhabitants in this dark region have in common". Clearly it meant "something more than just persistent poverty".

"The term underclass, with its echoes of the underworld, conjures up sin, or at least unorthodox behaviour. Low income may be a necessary condition for membership in such a class, but it is not sufficient." In which case, it's probably not very helpful.

We might as well talk about that other phenomenon - the "overclass" or elite, who practise a more socially acceptable form of exclusion from behind their security-locked gates. Could any kid from the poor end of town hope to peek through their windows without getting arrested these days?

Donating my two cents as a Roskill native, even though it bloodied the wrong target, Key's stab was tellingly positioned. With McGehan close nestled in the armpit of Mt Albert, while technically being in the Mt Roskill electorate, it's a double-whammy assault on the pride of the reddest of Labour territories outside of Mangere. For Helen and Phil, this is personal. It takes me back to what I wrote about the premier of No.2: reflecting on Clark's slightly naff but genuine Team New Zealand boosterism about Labour's down at heel multicultural heartlands, and our repositioning at the centre of national identity:

We never thought it would happen, but it does appear that we do now in fact matter - that those demographics left to ferment and foment down in the average lower-middling state-housey suburbs, have actually turned out to be the centre of something. The centre of...

...the Labour Party constituency during a period of unstable minority-government.

For three elections, first the Alliance, then the Greens (and the Maori Party), have failed to pull Labour left. Now, bizarrely, it's up to National to give them that directional shove.

There's currently no real policy behind any of National's gambit towards the poor and the brown, and the cracks are showing already. Key has looked more than a touch patronising in his attempt to force-feed Wesley Primary. I have no faith that the party will come up with the real goods.

But if it took a clumsy weilding of a dubious term like 'underclass' to bring class back into the political consciousness, and if this next election is going to be fought openly over the interests of low-income Maori and migrant minority communities, that's definitely no bad thing.

In other news, I've put my website back up, at a different domain name, after putting off archiving my Sunday Star-Times columns for ages. Here's the index page of my columns, for those of you wondering why I was such a slack blogger last year...

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