Sunday, February 25, 2018

When race talk jangles T&T nerves


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It was to be Barack Obama week, when that black man (or red man) would be re-elected President of those majority-white United States. There and everywhere else, that counted as history being made; but for people with minds able to receive it, the US election offered an otherwise richly learnable occasion.

Over there, questions of race are out in the open. Heads are counted according to race, and dispositions accordingly interrogated and predicted for political and other choices and tendencies.

More than 91 per cent of black American votes were cast for Obama, who was supported by 39 per cent of white voters. Various kinds of number crunchings newly confirmed the President as the emphatic choice of women, young people, Hispanics, Asians, and of course blacks.

Moreover, such exercises, yielding need-to-know information, apparently leave nobody upset. The very acts of collecting and processing such data produce no despairing or fearful sentiments about provocation of the T&T hyperbole called "race war".

Yes, I heard that expression spoken aloud last week, as part of the outbursts of rage over Jack Warner's observation that a Port of Spain march calling for his removal included hardly any Indo-Trinidadians. I too had noticed that, apart from those in the Re-Route contingent, few Indians had marched with the PNM, the unions and fellow-travelling organisations.

Were Indian members or supporters of the PNM, and Indian unionists, so shy of showing their faces in a demonstration against the (Indian) Government? That question sounds like a reasonable jump-off point for an analysis such as might take place in the US. But not in T&T where, to raise that is only to make trouble.

Mr Warner, watchful of his own cocoa in the political sun, drew disparaging conclusions from both the size and the racial composition of the November 2 turn-out. "Rowley cannot muster the appeal of a wide cross-section of the national community," he said. "Only one group responds to him."

Young people, he said, were noticeably absent from the march, as were Chinese, whites and mixed people. He might have added another category of conspicuous absentees: people from east Port of Spain and Laventille, some of whom days before had stopped traffic with flaming-barricade protests.

To the extent those conclusions smacked of evident truth, they also gave the offence that came descanting out in censorious editorials and other commentary. For it was destined also to be the week when local questions of race, bolstered by no reliable data gathering at all, would jangle T&T nerves.

Derek Ramsamooj, political analyst judged that the Warner remarks "will just ignite anger amongst the swing voters who perceive themselves to be Trinidadians and Tobagonians first, as opposed to East Indians and Africans." The general objection entailed dismissing a reality that should not speak its name, and to which no reference should be made. Mr Warner "should not have gone there", Karl Hudson-Phillips QC admonished.

Jack Warner was too far gone to care. Before the weekend was over, he had further aggravated T&T's race-nervous condition by refusing to share any spotlight with Opposition Leader Keith Rowley on the occasion of the opening of Divali Nagar.  Doing so, he said, would make for a "political jostling" amounting to "sacrilege".

On a roll if not on a rampage, the Jack Warner political character commanded attention like a big mas crossing and re-crossing the Grand Stand stage. In the US, superstar Obama had long learned it was politically profitless to project as any "angry black man". Here, however, the angry black man disguised as Jack Warner could actually be pictured wearing Indian kurta and mala.

Such a uniquely provocative projection marks the unpredictable figure in T&T politics represented by Jack Warner. As "clamorously black" as Keith Rowley, he asserts authority, nevertheless, to champion the Indian cause.

Roman Catholic Mr Warner claims and is reckoned to have Indian-insider status on the basis of being, among other things, the MP for Chaguanas West, heartland of Indiana, T&T. His 18,747 votes from that constituency amounted to a plurality larger than any other candidate in May 2010, and it followed the largest by any of the UNC Alliance in the 2007 general elections.

Again, in the UNC internal elections last March, Mr Warner obliterated the candidates contending for chairman. He received 14 times the sum of votes won by his two challengers.

Then Transport Minister Devant Maharaj was identified then with ill-fated support for one who had challenged Mr Warner. By last week, a chastened Mr Maharaj had come around enough to speak out in endorsement of his refusal to rub shoulders with Dr Rowley at Divali Nagar. 

According to a peculiar T&T canon of political correctness, Mr Maharaj had himself richly earned credentials as an angry Indian man.  That is to say, he has been recognised as a prominent disputant in "race talk" that is publicly frowned upon, but privately and unceasingly practised, in Trinidad and in Tobago.

Race talk, such as people were urged to feel ashamed about last week, is actually as Trini as callaloo, or doubles, or crab-and-dumpling. But that's something that it's somehow bad manners to admit. To be continued