Monday, March 27, 2017

A very good look at ethnicity


When I began reading Dr John La Guerre's newly-published book on ethnicity and race, The Dilemmas of Ethnic Policy, I expected a “good book,” one that was of the same order as his earlier book on the subject. Instead, I found myself reading a “very good book”, one that was highly informative and instructive.

What is the main aim of this book? It is “hopefully” to identify the ingredients of ethnicity, to probe its origin in particular countries, to identify and evaluate the various policies which have been designed in differing contexts and circumstances to address a conflict to which they have given rise. “All states and countries put policies in place to try and achieve these goals, whether they are spelt out or whether they are informal and customary.”

The context and countries chosen are mainly in Europe and the Commonwealth Caribbean as well as the United States, since these provide a laboratory for such a task especially at a time when following globalisation and the increasing contact among peoples and cultures and when, it is believed that new empires are emerging. The analysis includes Trinidad and Tobago, but goes beyond.

La Guerre begins by clarifying the distinction between ethnicity and race, an issue which gives rise to a great deal of misunderstanding and controversy. Ethnicity, he advises, is a broad composite term, and includes racial, economic, territorial, historical, and other such related factors. Race is a biological concept. Like ethnicity, it is an “imagined” concept, one that emerges when people strive to create larger communities in order to enable them to create larger collectivities to capture scarce resources. The assumption is that the community, with all that is available to it, will help to legitimise the state (hopefully).

One of the benefits provided by Dr La Guerre's book is an excellent bibliography which introduces us to many of the important persons who have written on the subject over the centuries—philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, historians and others.

Among those who have contributed over the centuries are Robert Knox, John Ray, John Herder, David Hume, Montesquieu, Gobineau, Adolf Hitler, Michael Banton, Thomas Sowell, Voltaire, RC Smith and Charles Darwin.

The book, however, shows us that ethnicity is a paradoxical thing. It also has a clear ideological undertone to it. To quote La Guerre: “The reader will soon recognise that a case is being made for power sharing and coalition”.

The author however believes that ethnic peace is achievable if the preconditions are there.

As the author himself tweets, “for power-sharing to succeed, it must convince groups that they will share equally from the benefit that the state dispenses that their representatives will have a fair voice in the decision-making in the society, and that they have a fair chance in their attainment of political power. What has been referred to as the ebb and flow of ethnic tensions was driven initially by these factors. The 1998 agreement in Ireland came after 30 years of bloodshed that left about 3,000 dead, and there has not been a single death in Trinidad and Tobago.”

The book is definitely worth reading by constitution specialists and policy makers, students and other lay readers.

 

—Dr Selwyn Ryan is a

political scientist