By Kevin Baldeosingh
The fire-coloured flyer from the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) announced a symposium on “Social and ethnic stratification in contemporary Trinidad and Tobago”. The discussion, which took place on May 7 at the National Library, was based on sociologist Lloyd Braithwaite’s seminal 1953 work Social Stratification in Trinidad, and the flyer explained that “In the years since that study was done, much has happened to alter the demographic landscape of Trinidad and Tobago. This is particularly the case in respect of the Indo-Trinidadian population which did not feature in Braithwaite’s analysis.” And, it promised in red letters, the symposium would “re-examine Braithwaite’s paradigm”.
This turned out to be false advertising, however, so it’s a good thing that only 50 people showed up for the talk.
The four panellists were political analyst Selwyn Ryan, sociologist Roy McCree, feminist Rhoda Reddock, and attorney-at law Dawn Seepersad. Ryan, who chaired the panel, explained that Seepersad had no sociological background, but he had spoken to her at a dinner party and “thought she had some interesting things to say.” In the following week, letter-writer Sheila Bedeau of Tacarigua would complain that a panel on such a topic should have been more ethnically representative and ask why persons like Anne-Marie Bissessar, John La Guerre, Kirk Meighoo, Ralph Premdass, or Raymond Ramcharitar had not been included.
In any case, none of the panellists fulfilled what you’d think would be the basic purpose of such a symposium: to explain how the society had changed in the half-century since Braithwaite did his research. McCree, who did at least make some general comments on the ethnic changes in class structure and urban rankings, asserted that a lack of data made an update difficult. This seems unlikely, given reports from the Central Statistical Office such as the 1997 Household Budgetary Survey, the 2000 Population and Housing Census, the Labour Force Report 2006, to say nothing of documents from other sources such as the 2005 Survey of Living Conditions and the 2008 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey. Reddock proffered some theoretical ideas, such as “ethnic dualism”, and claimed that the two major developments shaping social structure since Braithwaite were the 1970 Black Power movement and economic neo-liberalism. Neither theories nor assertions were supported by any empirical data. I don’t know if anything more came in the discussion after McCree and Reddock spoke, because after getting so little in one hour I figured it was time to leave the library’s Audio-Visual room.
Nonetheless, the idea behind the symposium was a good one. Braithwaite’s little study was the first attempt to create a rigorous (rather than imaginative) social portrait of Trinidad, and it provides a useful lens to analyse the society from a long perspective. I cannot take up all Braithwaite’s observations because I’d end up writing a monograph myself, so I have instead extracted some of his key comments and examined the data to see how things have changed (or not) in the ensuing decades.
Let’s start with Braithwaite’s fundamental assertion about Trinidad stratification: “[The coloured middle-class] would rank the ethnic groups in order of superiority and inferiority in an order such as this:- 1. White 2. Coloured 3. Black 4. Indian 5. Portuguese 6. Syrian”. In the 21st century, this no longer holds true from any perspective. Indeed, even in 1950 Braithwaite noted that “individuals from the Chinese, the Syrian and the Indian groups are, in that order, breaking into the lower fringes of white society.” So now, measured by economic position, the SLC states that “groups such as Chinese, Syrian/Lebanese and Caucasians that together accounted for less than one percent of the sample, were all among the non-poor.”
Popular perception has for some time held that Indo-Trinidadians are economically better off than Afro-Trinidadians, but the data provide no solid confirmation of this. The HBS shows little difference in the average household income of households headed by Afro-Trinis or Indo-Trinis, while my own analysis of (unadjusted) figures from the CSO for ethnicity and income found that 42 percent of Afro-Trinis had monthly incomes below $3000 as compared to 49 percent of Indo-Trinis. (However, the SLC says that, compared to Africans, “Indians had a lower percentage representation among the indigent, the poor and the vulnerable than was their representation in the population.”) The proportion of middle-income persons in both groups is about equal (10%), as is the ratio of wealthy persons (1%). The largest proportion of high-income individuals (over $15,000 per month) within their ethnic groups are Syrian-Lebanese and Chinese (14%) and white (21%). So, economically, whites have retained their dominant position. But they are no longer socially superior in politics or culture.
In Braithwaite’s time, complexion and class were closely linked. “The middle-class consisted predominantly of coloured people, that is of light-skinned and brown-skinned people, while the lower class consisted predominantly of black,” he wrote. This is still so to some extent, but not to the degree where a dark complexion prevents social advancement (though, in the case of light skin, it may help do so, especially for women). Afro-Trinis, who make up 37 percent of the populace according to the 2000 census, account for 29 percent of legislators, senior officials, and managers. Indo-Trinis, who form 40 percent of the populace, make up half of this occupational group. In the time of his study, Braithwaite wrote, “The establishment of coloured persons in the professions was easy because the bulk of the population was coloured and therefore there was no racial barrier to patronage.” Now, among professionals, Indo-Trinis are over-represented at 49 percent, and Afro-Trinis equitably at 38 percent. And in the elementary occupations, Indo-Trinis are slightly less represented (35%) against Afro-Trinis (38%).
These marginal differences have created an exaggerated perception of Indo success. This is partly because of the visibility of Indo-Trinis in high-status positions: they own and control about 20 percent of businesses, as compared to 10 percent of Afro-Trinis; over 60 percent of law firms are Indo-owned; and almost 80 percent of doctors are Indo. Also, Indo students take about two-thirds of national scholarships every year. This apparent superiority has created a backlash from Afro demagogues, who try to explain Indo success in terms of cheating – corruption in Common Entrance, according to calypsonian Cro Cro; biased entry requirements to the Mount Hope Medical School, according to literature professor Selwyn Cudjoe; and price-gouging by doubles vendors, according to PNM Government Ministers.
Yet the average Indo and Afro are on par economically and educationally, so Indo success involves only a small percentage of that group. There is, however, one significant difference between the Afro-Trinis and Indo-Trinis: marriage. Although half the population of T&T is classified as Never Married, Indo-Trinis have a marriage rate of one in two, as compared to Afro-Trinis whose marriage rate is one in three. Braithwaite had written that “Marriage is on the whole relatively successful, but even in unsuccessful unions there does not seem to be a steady recourse to the divorce court.” This is still the case today, with only one in seven marriages ending in divorce.
Nonetheless, the greater marriage rates among Indo-Trinis will, for a variety of reasons, probably lead to better outcomes for their children. The SLC notes that “Common-law and visiting unions were more likely in the lower quintiles, and formal marriage was associated with improved socio-economic status.” This implies that marriage creates a perception of higher status, even if economic levels are on par. Braithwaite wrote that “Of even greater interest is the high rate of population increase and the differential fertility rates that exist between the Negro and Indian groups.” Back then, the birth rates were 33 per 1000 for the populace as a whole, but 46 per 1000 for Indians. Two generations onward, the birth-rate has dropped considerably for both groups, and is now a mere 14 per 1000 persons. Braithwaite was thus wrong when he wrote that, due to Roman Catholic and Hindu beliefs, “There is little likelihood, therefore, in the context of Trinidad society that there will develop in the near future any movement based on the advocacy of birth control.”
If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the past half-century, however, it is the Trini elites’ idea of superiority. “The tendency is towards conspicuous consumption, towards accumulating as many as possible of the external marks which will win recognition from other people,” Braithwaite observed, even as future PNM leader Patrick Manning was running about in short pants. “In the intellectual field this showed itself in the desire to accumulate degrees quite apart from their intrinsic worth. One individual, for example, got a correspondence BA from a phoney institution in the United States but was willing and able to parade it.” In the 21st century, pastors parade their bogus PhDs and are allowed to open their own secondary schools.
And, finally, the highest in the land has stayed exactly the same: “There was always a tendency to lay the blame for any mistakes of policy, not on the Governor, but on his local advisors,” wrote Braithwaite; and he was also a former principal of the University of the West Indies.