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Towards an ethnically just society

By Selwyn Ryan

Carnival is a season when the society collectively portrays itself as being genuinely multicultural, a time when we proudly proclaim that how we vote is not how we party or vice versa.

Recent events in Tobago and indeed in the country as a whole, have however served to insist that we re-examine, yet one more time, our cherished myths about our ethnically carpentered society.

Comments made in respect of the recently published census suggesting that they are bogus and fraudulent are disturbing.

Accusations levelled in the Jamaican Observer about "ethnic stocking" also provoked nervous and anguished denials by spokesman of the ruling coalition.

The latter assert that what is perceived to be ethnic partisanship in terms of how we staff our public sector is in fact not "reality", but the rebalancing or "realignment" that normally takes place following "winner takes all" elections . It is a by-product of political discrimination and not "ethnic cleansing" or "ethnic stocking" as some allege.

Afro elements in our society are clearly restless and unhappy about how they believe the public-sector pie is currently being redivided between the two basic ethnic blocks, and fear that worse is sure to come. Their complaint is that the allocations are unjust. The People's Partnership denies that there is cause for concern and that there is in fact balance. Given the controversy, I suggested some time ago that there is need for a grand panchayat about the quality of ethnic governance that is in evidence in our society.

Are we really "neutrons" on the race issue?

We need empirical evidence as to what is really taking place.

We also need to bring to the bar of history all those who have or have had responsibility for shaping our society, and let the chips fall where they may.

My assumption is that psephological information would defuse and correct much of the misinformation that currently obtains and which masquerades as fact or the "truth".

My Express colleague, Reginald Dumas, has made a similar call.

We have recently had an extended commentary on the subject from Mr Trevor Sudama in another newspaper which needs to be amplified and circulated more widely. The two-part series entitled the "Goal of a Fair" and "Just Trinidad and Tobago", Mr Sudama recalls the warning issued in 1990 by Mr James Alva Bain, a member of the Public Service Commission.

Bain prophesied that the time would soon come when the PAX PNM which then obtained in the society between Afro-Trinidadians who were then dominant in the public sector, and the Indo-Trinidadians who were the owners of the heights of property and business and who were educating their children was coming unstuck. Bain observed that "with the introduction of compulsory primary education, the East Indians have increasingly acquired education and have been increasingly invading the fields of the Civil Service the professions and Government".

They were becoming structurally mobile due to the changing nature of the economy and the fact that they were educating themselves to take advantage of these changes.

As their numbers increased, they called for parity. As this was achieved, they would eventually gain control of the government.

As Bain asserted, "Should this time come when the East Indian section which owns most of the property and business and wealth in the country as well as control of the government an imbalance would develop that would cause undesirable stresses and strains that would not be good for the nation."

F E M Hosein, one of the leading Indian public intellectuals in the first decades of the new century had foreseen this development as early as 1913 and had boasted that the Afro element would be eclipsed and socially erased.

Sudama is of the view that the impending event which Bain foresaw and about which Hosein warned had since occurred, and that we need to do something about it if we are to steer the wind-tossed ship safely to its moorings. He drew our attention to the views expressed by Jack Warner that Indians were grossly under represented in the post-independence allocation of critical public sector jobs and status appointments, and that there was need to redress the imbalance. One assumes he would have to revise his quotas in the light of the changing demographic profile as indicated by the census which my colleagues in the UWI Social Science faculty assure me is as accurate and reliable as one can get.

What then is to be done by way of corrective action?

In Sudama's view, one which many share, affirmative action based on race is not what is needed.

Affirmative action could deal with short-run transitional imbalances, but could not address the consequences of culture and other inputs like geography, genetics and home environment.

As he rightly observes, "affirmative action can help to level the playing field temporarily and visibly. Inequalities will however still emerge because the state cannot equalise genetic disposition, home and community environment, and cultural orientation." This is an important and provocative observation. Affirmative action could keep inequality within manageable limits.

The state cannot arbitrarily bestow what is determined otherwise.

But what of affirmative action based on demographics other than race such as Brazil and some American and English universities?

What about affirmative action based on economic need or community of residence.

Sudama's proposed solution involves reliance on meritocracy. He concedes that there has been some movement over the years to a more transparent system of recruitment at the entry level.

This development, he says, has resulted in the creation of a measure of ethnic balance in the personnel of these services and that larger numbers if Indo-Trinidadians have been appointed.

He however claims that Afro-Trinidadian dominance still exists in the middle and upper echelons of these services.

If that is still the case, what is at work may well be "institutional racism", the by-product of appointments and job choices which were made over the years and which are working their way through the system like a goat in a python's stomach. That dominance has virtually or actually come to an end, or so it seems. The contract system and gender streaming have seen to that.

We however need to obtain the evidence. We also need to determine how the recently published census data would affect the balances.

Are Indos now over represented in the bureaucracy? If we use PR, who will gain and who would lose? Would we need to alter Jack's list?

In the new dispensation, which group would need the Equal Opportunity Commission?

Do we need to emphasise arithmetic representativeness or should merit count for more?

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