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Noble: Is ‘all ah we’ one family? The uncomfortable race conversations T&T needs

Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF head, in a conversation with the Washington Post last week described the economic situation brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic as a ‘crisis like no other’.

For her, the impending crisis was a  ‘great reversal’ that was wrought with much uncertainty. She foresaw significant job losses and specifically identified the Caribbean as a region in need of much help.

Photo: A homeless man in San Fernando tries to get by during the Covid-19 pandemic.
(Copyright Ghansham Mohammed/GhanShyam Photography/Wired868)

She pointed out that inequality had risen since 2008 and that the impending debt crisis had the capacity to obliterate small, emerging nations like ours. Speaking passionately about the need for the developed countries to help the smaller ones and urged the private and public sectors to come together to overcome the issues so that none is left behind.

It is against this backdrop that the local debate about racism and racial groups—what historian Bridget Brereton may call ‘Contesting the past’ (2007)—has to be appreciated. This attempt to reconstruct our past, real or imagined, can make us lose perspective about our national future.

The debate is necessary, but we have to be careful that in the midst of that fight we do not lose sight of our mutual interests.

Not all the narratives are grounded in fact. Some of them, to use Ibram Kendi’s (2019) frame of reference, believe that blacks are inherently defective and dangerous, needing to be kept under control.

Others urge blacks to change their behaviour and culture to catch up with the rest of the society. Yet others engage in class racism, equating blacks with poverty and black neighbourhoods with violence. Then we all fall into a cesspool and point fingers at each other as happened twice in one week with two widely circulated opinions.

Photo: Dianne Hunt, sister of former Minister of Sport Gary Hunt, says sorry for an ‘all lives matter’ post.

A classic case of ‘pot calling kettle black’. Both sides failed to recognise that the label of ‘racist’ is like a removable name tag that can be applied to whatever is being done or supported or expressed at the moment. To understand the harm, one has to step outside of their immediate community and experience life as ‘the other’ does.

The tragedy locally is that we live segregated lives and fail to appreciate what ‘the other half’ experiences on a daily basis. We fail to realise that talk of relative achievement needs an examination of the system and policies used to judge such.

But it is false to suggest that there is no help from The UWI in attempting to understand these competing narratives and that the African community is still the majority community when that has not been true since the 1980 census—unless we accept, as one of the contributors recently did, that a drop of non-Indian blood turns all our ‘Mixed’ people into Africans. He probably does not even realise how deeply rooted that thinking is in the history of US racism.

Refusing to acknowledge historical and other analytical work does not negate their presence.

A good book to study if one is interested in our social history, apart from Brereton’s work, is ‘Social & Occupational Stratification in Contemporary Trinidad and Tobago’ (ed Ryan, 1991)—a 474 pages by-product of an ISER- sponsored symposium. It explains inter alia the historical and sociological reasons for the lower representations of Indians in the public service and the under-representation of Africans in the private sector (pp 66-67).

Photo: Starlite managing director Gerald Aboud has apologised for racially insensitive comments in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent spike in black consciousness.

W Arthur Lewis (1985) noted: “… the most successful trading groups are those in which son follows father… into the business and is brought up to do so almost from birth.”

It is difficult to generalise, in a scientific way, that certain groups ‘have a head for business’. We need to look beyond the present to the historical antecedents and the institutionalised paths of developments.

It is easy to overlook our own ‘privilege’ when we urge others to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Some do not even have boots.

When we have never had cause to go to the General Hospitals and have to wait for more than twenty-four hours for help, we blissfully overlook that pain. When some of our schools have play facilities while others do not even have toilet paper, let us keep quiet or reach out to help.

We must never believe that throwing a scrap and calling it philanthropy is sufficient. It simply is not.

It is folly to believe that our present-day situation is of a long pedigree and free of bias. Naim Sabga, the progenitor of the Sabgas of Ansa McAl fame, only broke into Frederick Street, the stronghold of the local whites, in 1954.

Photo: Scotia Bank branch manager for Arima, Ronald Chan, addresses the public in a Trinidad Express advert on 11 June 1967.

We ignore the Tobago dreams up to today. There are various accounts about the dispossessions of the post-slavery Africans (ed Ryan, pp 168-174) and their banking forays (Ryan (2012) and Ng Wai (2009)).

The differences between the African and Indian families in business are explored both by Ryan (2012) and Barclay and Henry (2011). Let us, on both sides, read and be informed before pontificating.

Politically, Dr Eric Williams made errors that worsened an already bad racially-charged situation. We need to admit this.

He had a particular view of Mother Trinidad that was informed by his appreciation of colonialism and slavery. He failed to acknowledge the fears of the Indian community even though (or maybe because) he was conscious of the ‘race riots’ and bloodshed in British Guiana.

In the battle for Chaguaramas, he condemned some of the opposition party for being ‘the mouthpieces of a foreign power’. The then opposition—Victor Bryan and Rudranath Capildeo along with Ashford Sinanan—went to the US Embassy and bared their souls in an attempt to stop Dr Williams from fighting for Chaguaramas.

Photo: Then Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams (right) is greeted at 10 Downing Street in London by his British counterpart, Harold Wilson in 1964.
(Copyright AP)

One also has to recognise the work of HP Singh and the then Indian High Commissioner Shri Nanda in creating ‘controversial material likely to exacerbate racial tensions’ (Palmer, 2006). This led to ‘competitive victimization’ as Indian spokespersons fought to equate indentureship with slavery and to claim superiority through the value of their economic contributions.

HP Singh claimed, for instance, that Indians had contributed more than any other group to the economic development of the country. Ryan (1999) and Brereton (2007) observe that this claim is historically baseless but is an attempt to rewrite Trinidad’s history.

But it is true that Hindu schools were underfunded, and traditional Hindu marriages were illegal until 1945. Now HP Singh has been replaced by even more extreme protagonists.

Attorney Surendath Capildeo declared in 1989: “We are like no others. We are different… the Indian mind does not submit to slavery. You can not enslave an Indian mind.”

Sadly, the same is being said in different ways by some in other ethnic groups. We elect to divide rather than join and recognise that our differences make up the beautiful tapestry that is uniquely Trinidadian at the very moment we need to pool our resources and ingenuity.

Photo: Tribe revellers let loose on Carnival Monday in 2015.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

We need to accept the feedback from all sides at this time but keep focused on the goal—to survive the economic challenge that confronts us.

If not, history would be unkind to us.

About Noble Philip

Noble Philip
Noble Philip, a retired business executive, is trying to interpret Jesus’ relationships with the poor and rich among us. A Seeker, not a Saint.

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