By Kevin Baldeosingh
It is unlikely that Trinidadians are racist, but this does not mean that we aren’t racial. The distinction is a crucial one. Although the terms are used interchangeably by the average person, “racism” has extreme personal and political outcomes. “Racialism” may also influence personal and political choices, but its consequences are not so dire.
The scholar George M. Frederickson, in his book Racism: A Short History, defines racism as “a mindset that regards ‘them’ as different from ‘us’ in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable. This sense of difference provides a motive or rationale for using our power advantage to treat the ethno-racial Other in ways that we would regard as cruel or unjust if applied to members of our own group.”
Under colonial rule, therefore, racism was operative, but not extreme. “Coloured” and black persons were able to occupy professional and political office, even though they were effectively barred from the highest posts. And, once the People’s National Movement took over the country in 1956, racial perspectives changed, with Indo-Trinidadians now becoming the group considered “Other” by the dominant group. This is partly why the Trini colonial past is romanticised as free of racial bias between Afros and Indos. When the British ruled, the two ethnic groups would not have been competing for the State’s resources. This does not mean that racial bias did not exist. But such bias did not extend meaningfully into formal social relations (i.e. in the workplace) or into the government. Once the PNM came into office, however, then the Indos, as the second main national group, became politically salient.
In 1970, James Alva Bain, head of the National Broadcasting Corporation, recommended that the PNM government adopt an openly racial policy. “The East Indians have increasingly acquired education and have been increasingly invading the fields of the Civil Service, the professions, and the Government,” Bain said. “As their numbers must now reach parity with people of African descent, there is a real possibility that in the not too distant future they will get control of the Government. Should this time come when the East Indian section owns most of the property, business and wealth of the country, as well as control of the Government, an imbalance could develop in our society that would cause undesirable stresses and strains that would not be good for the nation. It is an urgent necessity, therefore, that all of us give serious thought to these matters, and like sensible people make a conscious effort to avoid the undesirable consequences that could develop from such a possible situation.”
This justification of a policy that would, if implemented, have barred Indo-Trinidadians from political office, continues to be repeated 40 years later by PNM activists such as Muhammad Shabazz and PNM radio talkshow hosts. Racial rhetoric from PNM time became a political tool, creating
the illusion that bigotry was more virulent as compared to a rose-coloured past where “Negro and Indian did get along”. It is this past, plus the accidents of geography that force close interaction, which has contained racial prejudice in Trinidad. Guyana, with a similar history, has had more racial problems than Trinidad mainly because its wider spaces allowed more distance, literally and figuratively, between Afro- and Indo-Guyanese.
In Trinidad, all the data suggest that racial bias is confined to a minority. A 1991 survey by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at UWI found that 65 percent of Indo-Trinidadians had no objection to their child marrying someone of a different race, and 94 percent of the Afro and mixed group didn’t oppose inter-marriage. A 2006 World Values survey found that 98 percent of respondents replied “No” when asked if they would object to living next door to someone of a different race. These findings confirm David Rudder’s lyric, “How we vote is not how we party”.
And, even here, political analyst Kirk Meighoo has argued in a 2008 academic paper (Ethnic Mobilisation vs. Ethnic Politics) that “politically, the Indian interest is really three interests (Hindu, Muslim, and Presbyterian), that the Africans are four (Afro-Saxon, Garveyite, Butlerite, and Tobagonian) and that others are also important (French Creoles, and those that do not fit because of mixture). Even if Hindus and Afro-Saxons have been the main elements in opposition, over time, these many sub-groups have combined in many unusual ways, which make Trinidad and Tobago’s politics far more complex than being based on African-Indian rivalry.”
This being the case, how is it that the minority of racialists seem to have the loudest voices? In my view, this is largely the fault of the politicians and the media. Politicians have a vested interest in promoting racial bias. It is a tight rope they walk, because overt racial bias would lose them the swing votes they need to get office. On the other hand, taking serious steps to remove race voting would make the task of winning office much harder, since they would have to get and retain office on the basis of issues.
Politicians have been using the media to amplify extremist views, hence creating a false picture of social reality which benefits them. The Campus Chronicle, a publication of the CCN Group, last month revealed that the People’s Partnership was paying university students to promote pro-government views on blogs. This is a step forward from what the PNM was rumoured to be doing during its last tenure in office, by paying radio talkshow callers a phone allowance to call in and propagate the party line. In respect to the State of Emergency, I have my own suspicions that the TV6 and CNC3 viewers’ polls were manipulated, since over 90 percent of the viewers were always in support of it. (This compared to just two-thirds of CNMG respondents, which is odd, unless the PP propagandists simply thought that it was a waste of resources to interfere with the State-owned
station’s poll on the basis that most C viewers would be PP supporters.) The point is, bloggers and radio callers may not accurately reflect public opinion in Trinidad, since they are either paid, political hacks, or both.
The most recent expression of this comes from the Equal Opportunities Commission’s report on the secret scholarship fund. PNM apologists have been at pains to deny racism in the disbursement of funds. Their rebuttals have been based on three main points: (1) that surnames don’t necessarily reflect ethnicity; (2) that the seven percent of Indos who got scholarships isn’t low if only seven percent or so applied; (3) there is racial bias in the admissions to UWI’s medical and engineering faculties.
The very incoherence of these arguments, to say nothing of their vehemence, suggests that the persons making them believe that there was, in fact, bias. The low ratio of Indos who have non-Indian surnames makes the first argument meaningless; the second in itself proves that the PNM network was utilised to surreptitiously let “suitable” persons know about the fund, while excluding the general populace; and the third argument reveals a mindset which equates entitlement with meritocracy. This last is especially unfortunate (whether its proponents actually believe their own argument or not) since it is geared toward the dependency syndrome mentality inculcated in PNM supporters and Afrocentrists.
Unfortunately, since the other side has Devant Maharaj and Suruj Rambachan as their spokespersons, rebutting claims of racial policies, especially in light of growing rumours about race-based surveys of State employees, would be impossible. And here is where race undermines democracy in Trinidad.
All the available evidence suggests that racism is not a serious issue for the average citizen. Yet, despite the majority not cleaving to extremist bigotry, persons with racial perspectives receive State largesse and are appointed to high office. If that goes on long enough, then racialism could, with the right demographic shifts, easily become racism. In which case, all the problems we face now, from poverty to crime to education, would truly become unsolvable.