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Race, Wealth, and Constitutional Debate

By Selwyn Ryan

During the recent debate on the reform of the Constitution, the PNM was accused of whipping up ethnic fears about social collapse. It was argued that the PNM’s objection to the run-off vote provision was said part of a strategy to establish and demonise the Partnership.
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, however, denied that her party was pursuing a race-driven hegemonic option. As she protested, “It is not true that an ethnic takeover is being engineered” and that the Government was subtly playing the race card. She, however, argued that given the racial nature of the society, such a strategy could not succeed. She observed that the census indicated that there were fewer Indos and Afros than they were before, but that the mixed population was, however, growing at a faster pace.
Thirty-five (35.4) per cent of the population were Indos, thirty-four (34.2) per cent were Afros, mixed elements were 22.2, and ( 7.6) per cent were “others”.
This, she claimed, meant that no group was in the majority or could become so in the near future.
We were ethnically plural, she insisted.
She further argued that since more than 50+ per cent of the voters were required to elect an MP, it would require more than a solid ethnic vote to win the country. Said Persad-Bissessar: “If every single Indian voted for the UNC or the Partnership, they could never get the majority required. No one ethnic group on its own can win the required 50 per cent of the vote. They would have to unite with other groups. That is what the run-off really signifies; majority rule with a mandate for unification instead of division. Her statistics were defective, but the point was made.
Race and religion featured prominently in the recent constitutional debate both in Parliament and in the public squares.
The discourse was, however, sotto voce and coded. This was hardly surprising, given our history and sociology. Panday, for example, once made interesting use of national statistics following the 1990 census.
He noted that Indos were 40.3 per cent of the population, 39.6 were Afro, and the mixed were 18.4.
Panday, however, remarked that even though the Indian population had grown and were a plurality, if not a majority, they behaved as though they were still a minority.
As Panday lamented, “The minority syndrome had sunk so deeply into the psyche of the Indians that even when they became the majority, they refused to accept that fact and continued to behave as though were still in a minority.”
Kamla used census figures to suggest that there was no significant racial imbalance in the society: but race was not the only factor. Raw population does data not determine the incidence or absence of wealth.
Also important is strategic location, distribution of verbal and other skills and values, ideological disposition, leadership, attitudes toward the accumulation of wealth etc. Despite Kamla’s formal statement on the race question, it is no hidden secret that some groups are growing faster in terms of accumulated wealth and are showing a propensity towards cupidity. The forthcoming Survey of Living Conditions will tell us more of this later.
Keen observers recognise that there was a correlation between ethnicity and the incidence or support for run-off provisions of the proposed constitution bill.
Polling data made this connection evident.
According to Market Facts and Opinions, “A deep dive into the opposing camps of those in support and those against, showed clearly defined demographic profiles. Those in support of the bill tended to be of East Indian ethnic descent of. Three quarters of those respondents vocalised their support, while six per cent of respondents of African descent and 21 per cent of those respondents of mixed ethnic heritage believed so.
Ethnicity was not the only predictor of a respondent’s position on the bill. The divide was also replicated on geographic grounds. Half of the respondents who lived in Central and South Trinidad were of the view that the bill ought to be passed compared to a mere quarter of those in the East-West Corridor.
What all of this means is that when one goes behind the figures, and looks at who is in the dance with whom, clear patterns emerge. We fool ourselves into believing that we have done the analysis before making up our minds. Many of us had, however, made choices long before the Speaker’s mace was brought into the chamber.
The bell was in the head of Pavlov’s dog. This was true of all significant groups in varying proportions. With some exceptions, policy preferences recapitulated tribal preferences which were correlated with ethnicity.
Given all this, and given the intensity of passion that the event generated, it is important that our citizens generally and our leaders and opinion leaders in particular, heed the warning that we gave earlier, viv, that the natives were getting restless and that there could well be activities that generate unintended consequences in response to what we say or do. I am not of the view that all is business as usual.
I have previously warned that the community is going “South” in more ways than we recognise, and that activities which were intended to be part of a formula to give “power to the people”, might yet prove to be the proverbial “Trojan Horse”.
Let me confess that I did not support the run-off bill which I consider provocative and ad hominem.
I applauded Senators Vieira and Drayton who said it all.
“I also applauded much of what one did at the end of the evening was to “shoot Niagara” in the dark. But who really knows how things will turn out? In my case, who would have thought that I, as a young graduate student, would be looking back at what De Gaulle did in France in the 1960s to kill the fractious political parties of the 4th Republic?
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