A beast that asks no quarter, and gives none
September 6, 2001
I write today about a most troubling development in our country's continued troubling journey down the road of sure disintegration. Please do not take this story lightly or over- react to it; history compels us to treat it soberly.
Someone I know who is engaged in the search for a house to rent in Georgetown had a most chilling and revealing experience this past week. Having seen an advertisement in a newspaper, the person called the real estate agency concerned on Wednesday August 29 and was given the usual information regarding the number of houses available, their descriptions, prices, and locations.
An arrangement to look at five available houses the following day did not materialize as the agent had a change of plan. However, during discussion of one of the houses, which is located in Prashad Nagar that seems to fit the prospective renter's budget and taste, the agent asked their racial identity. When the person replied African Guyanese, the agent told them that the owners did not wish to rent to Black people. Although quite shocked the renter pressed on with arrangements to look at the other houses the following day (Friday).
Although they had tied up arrangements to meet at the first house the day before, the agent called about half an hour before the time for the appointment. She asked if there were children. The renter answered in the affirmative and stated their ages, which happened to be within the age stipulation. The agent then said there was still a problem, as the owners did not want to rent to "Negroes." She then said that African Guyanese owned only one of the houses, and as such that one would not be problematic. When the renter asked if this "race thing" is a norm, the agent answered: "Of late."
I have since been told that a similar advertisement with preference for a particular race as renter actually appeared in one newspaper last November and was removed after a citizen protested to the newspaper's management. Conversations with a few Guyanese, both Blacks and East Indians, in or near to the real estate business, seem to suggest that the case I have highlighted is not isolated. If this is so, then it is a clear sign of apartheid. Many who lived in the southern USA during segregation or in England in the old days will remember the signs that said: "Whites Only" and "No Blacks" and "No Dogs and Coloureds"
Who are these landlords? Is their behaviour typical of Indian behaviour? What is the motivation for this kind of behaviour? What are the implications for race relations in Guyana? What are the political implications?
To my mind, even if this practice is not widespread, the fact that it happens at all, is a serious development that reflects the radical deterioration of race relations in Guyana. In situations of racial conflict small things have big potential as one little spark transforms a small thing into a big countrywide tragedy. I know many African Guyanese will quickly dub this story an example of extreme Indian bigotry, and rightly so. I condemn it in no uncertain terms. It is morally wrong, bigoted, disdainful, and dehumanizing. I cannot be silent on this and Guyana should not be silent. All, especially the Indian leaders, academics, and commentators, should roundly condemn this practice for it is as debasing and injurious as those that target people of Indian descent for violence. But we must go further and get to the root of this behaviour, which to my mind lies at the centre of our ongoing racial competition and conflict over the issue of who owns Guyana.
But I wish to remind Africans of the not so recent campaign by some of their advocates who called on them to boycott Indian businesses.
This boycott call was in the minds of its advocates defensive in that it is an expression of African self-reliance and a response to Indian triumphalism. Every group in society has a right to find legitimate ways of fortifying itself, especially in a situation of inter-group conflict. But in conditions of racial and ethnic conflict, a defensive move by one race is usually seen as offensive by the other race. I submit that this move not to rent to Africans is part of a direct response by Indians to the ongoing racial competition and conflict and I am equally sure that the boycott call exaggerated it. This is what the agent meant by "of late."
Racial (and ethnic) conflict develops a life of its own, and if it is not persistently tackled, the society loses its balance and soul. In such a situation none is innocent; the victims soon become the aggressors. The person seeking to rent this house has been discriminated against because of their race and told that it is bad to be Black in Guyana. They can't find a house. This person is strongly opposed to violence against Indians yet is the subject of Indian violence. I say violence deliberately, because violence is not only physical, it is also psychological. And this person has suffered psychologically; they want to leave Guyana forthwith.
Can the boycotters find houses for Africans to rent? This is the problem with certain tactics in a racially polarized society. Leaders and advocates have to make sure that their tactics do not further endanger members of their own race and further sour race relations. As Mr Kwayana warned in May of this year those who attack others because they are a local majority expose innocent people of their own race to danger in areas or circumstances where they are a minority. This is the nature of ethnic conflict; it claims victims even when they are not directly involved. It is a beast that asks no quarter and gives none.
This, sadly, is where Guyana is. And the tragedy is that the leaders don't seem to care. Mr Jagdeo and Mr Hoyte, this is what ordinary Guyanese have to deal with on a day to day basis while you engage in a necessary dialogue, but one that does not seek and thus cannot come up with genuine answers to the real plight of the society. I warn that history will not be kind to you two gentlemen for daily squandering opportunities to prevent our country from imploding and in the process imprisoning your followers and the rest of us in these dirty and hateful racial prisons.
Do the PNC, Mr Hoyte, the PPP and Mr Jagdeo feel any pain about the suffering of ordinary Black and Indian people who voted for them? Do they feel any guilt that their rhetoric and political manipulation have led both Africans and Indians to reckless behaviour? Do they feel any shame that in their continued resistance to power sharing they are signalling to Africans and Indians that it is wrong to share and it is right to seek domination through might? Is there any sympathy for starving, uneducated, and uncouth children? Do you love Guyana? Simply talking about modalities at the top cannot check racial conflict. You have to agree to and create mechanisms through which social relations and race relations can undergo a change in direction and tenor that will guarantee them a new and hopeful life.
You, Mr Leaders, by your politicking, have condemned Guyana to a miserable experience that has drugged everyone into a stupor. Everyone, from minister and MP's to cane-cutter and housewife, has now joined "More fire," "Bruck you back," and "Slow fire". The racial war continues. It is not a Hot War today; it's a Cold War. But it will get hot again tomorrow as it is gaining temperature behind the scenes. We have a race against time. Please Guyanese, tell your leaders to whom you have entrusted your future to take steps to stop this madness. There are proposals on the table to start this process. If they continue to ignore this new common sense, then you still have a last resort - your own ability to free yourselves from their handcuffs.
Yes, our nasty racial behaviour is directly linked to our inevitable struggle over who will control the government and the state - Africans? Indians? Or all races? Without laying any claim to genius, I say emphatically that only when all races feel a stake in the decision-making in Guyana will we be afforded the space to effectively fight racial hatred, violent crime, police criminality, social degradation and all the other ills that afflict our society.