Trinidad and Tobago is a nation of immigrants. We may have come on different boats, but we are in the same boat now. Between the drop in oil and gas prices and their depressed demand, the consequent lack of foreign exchange and the Covid-19 economic shock, we could be set back by at least three or four decades.
This grim outlook, even if we choose to ignore it, is the backdrop to our just-completed crazy week and our months ahead. We cannot wish it away.
The outrageous outburst of JTUM president-general Ancel Roget, the airing of the infamous Trinity Triangle ads and the angry ‘workers’ who turned up demanding their election pay from the would-be Tunapuna representative are the bookends.
The Ramsaran’s flare up is an expression of what awaits us more than it is a new-fangled situation. As Benedict Anderson suggests in Imagined Communities (1983) ethnic identity and ethno-capitalism become sources of conflict and can split a nation. The internet which is supposed to bring us information and allow free speech becomes a breeding ground for hatred.
Our answer for the question, ‘what kind of country do we wish for?’ was answered this week by several of our leaders as: ‘keep it rolling, don’t go changing’. This response may yet haunt us. The usual platitudes were trotted out, but we never allowed ourselves to delve into the root causes of the problem.
There is a straight line between the neo-liberal philosophy adopted in the 80’s, when we jettisoned ‘all- ah- we- is- one’ for ‘every man for himself’ and today’s perceived racism. At the heart are the income inequality and poverty problems.
Those, presently expressing disgust for others, have benefited from government policies enriching themselves; but now kick down the ladder of social mobility, pretending to be self-made men and women.
As the society got more and more unequally wealthy, new communities displaced the integrated ones that previously existed. The ‘camps’—exemplified by the way the expatriates who worked in the oil industry lived—became our expected aspiration.
We put our children into privately run schools, which also denuded the public schools of the good teachers. Our children, living separate lives, enjoyed a standard of life that was disconnected and separated from their peers in the wider society.
This cocooning robs them of understanding those who will eventually work for them. Removed from the pain of life, those young people cannot comprehend why others cannot be like them, except through some inherent shortcoming of their own making. This gives rise to casual disrespect in the workplaces and in our society.
Should we analyse the current racist discourse, we will perceive the link between the casually expressed discrimination and the structure of racial inequity. The words and expressions used have no meaning without understanding the underlying structural social problems.
The ‘others’ are labelled with demeaning caricatures, likened to objects and animals and then are to be avoided or else subjected to violent overtures. We fail to grasp that this action and the reaction to it further depresses our economy and reduces our capacity to recover. It stops our economy in its tracks.
As it becomes less acceptable to speak openly, there is a switch to a basic three-step move: make a jab with thinly veiled references then a quick step away from any charges of racial speech and the emphasising of a lack of any direct reference.
The final phase is the sharp kick that savages any critic for alleging racial victimisation. The coded message becomes acceptable, in this manner, as a valid explanation for some perceived shortcoming on the part of the ‘other’ side.
The job is totally done when some members of the targeted group accept the arguments and chastise their fellow members for the actions about which they are accused. This increases the bitterness as accusations of ‘sell out’ reverberate, as some yearn for acceptance by the privileged.
Nobody appears willing to analyse or face this problem in any of the public comments offered. This is why we focus on the ‘employee’ or individual rather than the systemic issue.
We appear comfortable with maintaining the status quo and silencing or shaming ‘those people’. We indulge in ‘whatabout-ism’ as a means of assuaging our consciences. Or we turn away and hope it will disappear.
Sad news: the problem is not going away but will worsen. When consumer confidence declines, consumption also does. We then all suffer regardless of race.
Our inability to understand or deal with the systemic issues led to a writer casually citing, without a scintilla of understanding, the Langston Hughes’ iconic poem ‘Harlem’.
I quote this poem in its entirety for those who have not read it:
What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?/ Or fester like a sore—/ And then run?/ Does it stink like rotten meat?/ Or crust and sugar over—/ like a syrupy sweet?/Maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load./ Or does it explode?
Some believe that this poem was the likely inspiration for Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. Hughes, an early supporter of MLK, was profoundly describing his frustration at his experience of inequality in the literary world.
The ‘workers’ in Tunapuna, like many others in this country, have had their hopes deferred too often. The sore of inequality and the disrespect to workers and customers alike is well on its way to being a piece of rotten meat. And like a dead dog at the roadside, the carcass would explode and soil us all.
Do we wish to reach there, or do we want better for our children? What ought we to do to head off the explosion?
All divine religions consider good treatment of the ‘others’ as an act of righteousness. The Bible warns, do not oppress the ‘other’ for he has a defender in God.
The injunction is to love him as yourself since you too were ‘others’. The choice is ours.