Cartoons published in The Press and the Marlborough Express were "insulting" and "blatantly negative" stereotypes of Maori and Pacific Island people, a tribunal has heard.
Labour MP Louisa Wall and South Auckland youth group Warriors of Change have taken the newspapers and their parent company Fairfax to the Human Rights Review Tribunal after Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy criticised the cartoons but declined to take the matter further.
Cartoons by Al Nisbet about the Government's breakfast in schools programme ran in The Press and the Marlborough Express in May last year.
One depicted a group of adults, dressed as children, eating breakfast and saying: "Psst ... If we can get away with this, the more cash left for booze, smokes and pokies."
The other depicted a family sitting round a table littered with Lotto tickets, alcohol and cigarettes and saying: "Free school food is great! Eases our poverty and puts something in you kids' bellies."
University of Waikato senior research fellow Dr Leonie Pihama told the tribunal that the cartoons could not be representations of non-specific ethnic groups from poor backgrounds. Their depiction of brown, obese, smokers who were dishonest beneficiaries, were clearly racist stereotypes of Maori and Pacific people.
These stereotypes can lead to physical and emotional violence and harm for ethnic minorities, Pihama said.
"If our people believe we are not worthy, that we are less than, or inferior than; or we have less rights than other people, that can lead to issues of suicide," she said.
Under cross-examination, Pihama accepted that in New Zealand Maori and Pacific people were statistically more likely to be obese, smokers, and use alcohol. However, in the cartoons' representation of the group as dishonest, willing to rip off children and the government, they became a dangerous stereotype.
"The thing about representations is that it comes as a whole package. This depiction is built upon many generations of ideas of racist thinking of Maori and Pacific people," she said.
Earlier, Wall told the tribunal the central characters in the first cartoon were Maori or Pacific Islanders and the family group in the second was "very clearly a Maori family".
She said the cartoons were "insulting and ignorant put-downs of Maori and Pacific people".
The MP for Manurewa said the cartoons were "unlawful discrimination" as they violated Section 61 of the Human Rights Act.
Her electorate had 30 mainly low-decile schools with predominantly Maori and Pacific Island rolls.
The cartoons would have a "profound effect on young people".
"Many young people have to deal those depictions alone," she said.
Wall said she was disappointed her complaint to the Human Rights Commission was "dismissed without any further action".
The commissioner seemed to have only assessed whether the cartoons were racist when the word racist was never used in Section 6.
Section 61 says it is unlawful to publish matter that is "threatening, abusive, or insulting ... words likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons ... on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons".
Fairfax is defending the action.
The tribunal, headed by Rodger Haines, QC, has allowed five days for the hearing.