Thursday, January 18, 2018

Mischaracterising the African mood

Theodore Lewis logo22

Mark Fraser

 Raoul Pantin is a highly regarded columnist, and so when he writes, citizens take note. I read his column titled “A vote against racism” in Wednesday’s Express, and was surprised at the thinness and ad hoc nature of the data he had marshalled to make his case that we are back to racial ugliness when it comes to assessing the Government.

Blatantly racist comments made in his presence by black acquaintances were sufficient to prod him into thinking he should, in disgust, vote for the Partnership in the next election. Mr Pantin writes that as the conversation progressed, “it had less and less to do with disagreement over the Government’s policies or projects or even personal dislike” and more to do with a racist divide. Where has Mr Pantin been these past four years? Why are people against the Government now? No, it is not race. Let me count the ways.

Mr Pantin does concede he had heard only one side of the story. He writes that “for all I know, this may not be a one-sided racist stance: it may be echoed among some individuals in the Indian community as well”. But hearing one side of the story was sufficient to cause him apparently to decide on his vote.

I must say I am flabbergasted by this article, indeed disappointed by it, because much of the reaction to it will be based on the repu­tation of its source.

These are tense times and while we cannot escape race here, those who write about it really owe us some measure of journalistic balance when they do. We cannot just get vex based on conversations we hear. The journalist cannot assume his personal singular experience can suffice when drawing a conclusion that has implications for the whole country.

What I had difficulty overcoming as I read Mr Pantin was the overwhelming evidence available for all to see of black acceptance of Mrs Persad-Bissessar as Prime Minister in May 2010, and for her party. Whatever heated ole talk he heard cannot at all stand against the weight of the evidence that the People’s Partnership won 29 of the 41 seats on offer in that election. They did so largely because of the black vote. Yes, black people voted for an East Indian Prime Minister. People’s National Movement (PNM) supporters rejected Patrick Manning and the party with vengeance, the party losing 14 seats at the election. The East-West Corridor, north of the Caroni River, the stronghold of the PNM, succumbed. 

To say race is the primary basis of politics in the country is to admit to history. We are a plural society, as Morton Klass pointed out in his study of race relations in the country back in the 1940s. Klass found the two races mixed, but did not combine. Each race looked to its own representatives to seek its interests.

The East Indian indentureds and the former African slaves who found themselves here were merely being pragmatic. There is no evidence historically of any kind of tension between the races that suggested some fundamental ethnically inspired dislike for each other. Rather, what we have had over time are these two numerically dominant races finding common ground and bases to co-exist.

In the past four years of Partnership rule in this country, I can think of no incident of racial hostility nationally that merited front-page news in the daily papers. Some individual may say this or that, but the proof of the pudding here is our ability to live together, and I see this every Sunday morning in the Arima or Tunapuna markets, where our true colours show, and where we model tolerance.

It is the case that strongholds of the major parties are race-based. Mrs Persad-Bissessar dons her masala yellow to make her way to “the heartland” of Chaguanas to rally the troops. Woodford Square, not far from Laventille, was the stomping ground of Eric Williams. We hear current politicians, such as the Minister for Tertiary Education, speak of a new day in the delivery of educational services, where the locus is “south of the Caroni River”.

The Prime Minister abandoned the manifesto idea of an education city in St Augustine, much like the cities of Oxford or Cambridge, for the more partisan idea of a law school in Debe. The only new hospital to be built by the Government will be within a couple of miles from the old Brechin Castle sugar factory in Couva, among sugar wor­kers.

I think what we have learned over time in this country is the art of political compromise when it comes to race. For example, Hindu schools, as other denominational schools, rely on taxpayers of all races for their existence. The Hindu child can also attend Presentation College, the convents, Bishop Anstey High School, etc, as well as Lakshmi Girls’ College. A Presbyterian child can go to Hillview, St Augustine Senior or Queen’s Royal College. Black children can go to “Naps”, or St Augustine Girls’ High School.

The result is that despite the long spell of PNM rule to which Mr Pantin refers, there really is little evidence in the country of inequality in education on account of race. The dominance of the East Indian child in major examinations in the past decade, as well as the populations of The University of the West Indies and The University of Trinidad and Tobago, is evidence we have managed to run a society in which, from an education standpoint, there is equality of opportunity.

Writing about the Black Power Revo­lution of 1970 from an Indian standpoint, my late great friend and UWI history lecturer Dr Kenneth Parmasad said he counselled young Indian men, for whom he was mentor at that time, that this was an opportunity for racial cohesion.

His seemingly counter-intuitive logic was that the African quest for ancestral roots would reduce hostilities that the African held for Indians merely on account of the latter’s clear ties to India. The more the African understood his roots, the more he would understand that Indian ties to heritage were not based on some sense of ethnic superiority.

No, we are not there yet when it comes to a racial nirvana. But all of us hold Sunil Narine to be our boy. And in the steelband community, the gap left by Jit Samaroo’s illness cannot easily be filled. For what it’s worth, Jack remains the man in Chaguanas. 

Raoul Pantin should have listened more closely to the calypsoes under the Partnership, beginning with “Travel Woes” which won the crown last year, and which spoke of a Government that has not been able to find its way, stumbling over itself week upon week, and the hopefulness of Chucky Gordon’s “Marriage of the Century” which speaks euphemistically of a coming together of “chutney” and “soca”. Then there were the yellow costumes of the happiest man alive.

• Theodore Lewis is professor emeritus,

University of Minnesota, USA.