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Race rules

By Kevin Baldeosingh

The Deputy Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly, Hilton Sandy, says he is not racial. I believe he is being honest, but I don't believe he's telling the truth.

Unlike Mr Sandy, there's no contradiction in my belief. In his apology for his "ship from Calcutta" gaffe, Sandy said: "It was just some political picong, but it was no racist talk. It was not meant to offend anybody."

But psychologists have developed a set of cognitive experiments, known as Implicit Association Tests (IATs), which can reveal people's unconscious biases. Contrary to popular belief, human beings are not born tolerant and learn prejudice from the adults around them—rather, they are born with a tendency to bigotry and have to learn to be tolerant of persons and groups who are different to theirs. So the second most interesting thing the IATs and other experiments have shown is that even persons who are against racism, ideologically and ethically, can still harbour racial prejudices.

Most of these studies have been done in the United States and tested for racism of white Americans against black ones. In one study of white medical doctors, the researchers found that, even though the doctors did not think they had any preference for patients of their own race , they were less likely to recommend medicine and treatment for a black patient than a white one for the same condition.

But here's the first most interesting finding: some doctors were excluded from the study because they realised beforehand that it was designed to test racism. Yet those doctors, although the IAT showed that they also had a preference for whites over blacks, were actually more likely to prescribe treatment for the latter. "In other words, once the doctors understood that race was an issue, race was no longer an issue," writes psychologist Frank Partnoy in his book Wait. "They counterbalanced their implicit bias, like a driver adjusting to a misaligned steering wheel."

Obviously, though, an individual has to be motivated to do such counterbalancing. The motivation may be institutional, cultural or moral. Institutionally, professional standards may provide incentives for a person to not be biased. Culturally, if social norms frown on bigotry, an individual would also refrain from biased behaviour. And, morally, a person may simply consider such behaviour wrong and battle against their own predilections. But, in respect to the first two, Sandy would be incentivised to promote racial attitudes rather than otherwise.

According to the 2000 census (since breakdowns from the 2010 census remain unavailable from the Central Statistical Office two years after it was completed) Indos make up less than three per cent of the population of Tobago, while Afros make up 88 per cent: so the social norms in the island are not conducive to racial egalitarianism. This tendency would probably be exacerbated by the political culture. It was the late Kwame Ture who coined the term "institutional racism", and the reality of this concept has been confirmed by a recent psychology experiment in which mere exposure to a video of a white person behaving in a subtly racial manner toward a black person made white students racial as well. It is reasonable to assume that similar processes happen within political parties, such as the PNM and the UNC, and race-based organisations such as the Maha Sabha and the Emancipation Support Committee.

So when in his apology Sandy says that he has always conducted himself in public office with "integrity and fairness", he may well believe this. But the odds are more in favour of him making decisions based on bias (though not necessarily racial bias). Sandy blamed his statement on being "overwhelmed by the exuberant atmosphere" of the political meeting. But, as a politician seeking to be re-elected, his overwhelming had to be driven by the perception that talk about Indians would win the crowd's favour. In other words, even if he is not racial, he was catering to racialism. (I am making a distinction here between "racism", which is hatred of a group based on race, and "racialism", which is the belief that fundamental differences exist between racial groups.) As political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita says in The Dictator's Handbook, "Understanding what people want and how they get it can go a long way to clarifying why those in power often do bad things. In fact, bad behaviour is more often than not good politics."

The calculation the PNM leadership has to make is whether a resignation by Sandy would harm them more in Tobago than benefit them in Trinidad. In the 2009 THA election, Sandy won the Roxborough/Delaford district with 63 per cent of the vote; Chief Secretary Orville London, by contrast, was victorious in his district with a mere 52 per cent. It is therefore unlikely that Sandy will have to step down. And, since politicians make decisions in order to get votes, what does that say about the majority of citizens?

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