Racism hurdle in Trinidad

By Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
April 15, 1998

AS IF the very chilling spate of vicious killings, rapes, kidnappings and other forms of criminal violence are not enough of an undesirable burden for the people of this multi-ethnic, culturally diverse society to endure, fanning the flames of racism is becoming an increasing preoccupation of certain elements in Trinidad and Tobago.

As it has been for other so-called plural societies of the Caribbean Community - Guyana and Suriname -race has been a constant, worrying factor in the body politic of Trinidad and Tobago, particularly as it relates to the aspirations of Trinidadians of African and East Indian descent.

In Jamaica, afflicted for years by the politics of tribalism, as manifested primarily in the "garrison constituencies", the worry of Jamaicans in this post 1997-elections phase, centres on the priorities and decisive actions of Prime Minister P.J.Patterson's administration in curbing the frightening levels of murder and violence and to combat poverty.

As Patterson considers just how best to respond to the challenges of crime and violence and poverty, Guyana - whose President, Janet Jagan, he met in Kingston during the past week - continues to survive in a politically tense atmosphere that makes it difficult to ignore the tragedy of racial divisions.

But, in concentrating in this column primarily on negative trends in Trinidad and Tobago, I wish to state that I have long held the view, like journalist colleagues of the calibre of George John and Owen Baptiste, that the media should desist from encouraging groups and individuals to speak about citizens of this and other multi-ethnic societies in terms of race - Indians and Africans.

I have a problem in accepting George John's contention, as articulated in a recent column on `All must be equal in a Mother's eyes’, that calypso, "is now in danger of being eliminated from the national culture..." by virtue of a perceived threat from "an intolerant government".

But I am certainly in agreement with him and all other journalists and social commentators who advocate that it is more correct, socially healthy and desirable to speak in terms of Trinidadians of African and Indian descent. Or for that matter, although it rarely arises, of the minority White, Chinese or Portuguese citizens of the country.

The politicians play the "race game" very well, the better to garner votes and maintain the divisions even as they shed crocodile tears about the damage being done to the social fabric as they go on the offensive against their opponents, often to better cover their own tracks.

The great pity, tragedy really, is when they find allies in the academic community, in the media and among the performing arts in the propagation of racism, and at times seemingly willing to do so because of an unwholesome convergence of prejudices and fears.

An independent and serious examination of reporting of statements, analyses and commentaries in sections of the print and electronic media on politics and governance since Basdeo Panday became the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, may very well confirm some of his allegations about keeping the race issue alive, and in a manner not dealt with under the regimes of the People's National Movement (PNM), so as to politically embarrass and hurt his governing United National Congress (UNC).

Nevertheless, there can be no justification for the Prime Minister to have engaged in vitriolic, racist criticisms against any editor or reporter of any media enterprise. The simple guiding rule is that two wrongs do not make a right.

On the cultural front, it is pointless for some of the outstanding calypsonians to go on the defensive against claims of the evident racism in the lyrics of some of their colleagues who, within recent years, have been exploiting the race factor with the relish that others have been doing for years with sex at the expense of women.

The late Eric Williams, on whom some very misguided and highly prejudiced Trinidadians of Indian descent are currently pouring their allegations of racism, had also suffered from the fatigue of the calypsonians.

But there is a fundamental difference in the kind of 'fatigue' he had to endure as he allowed - to his eternal credit - freedom of expression to flower, than the undisguised racism associated with today's conveniently described "Indian politicians" of the UNC government.

I have read the recent comments also by the anthropology professor, Frances Henry, who gives credence to the argument that racism was alive in the productions and performances of calypsonians.

I mention this not to rationalise the racist prejudices of others but to underscore my own position, as articulated in a previous column:

That position, with which others may disagree, is that calypsonians do not have the right to engage in racism and cultural slander, under the pretext of freedom of expression, when we in the media can so quickly be hauled before the courts for committing such libellous offences in the name of 'freedom of the press'.

I salute all calypsonians who use their creative skills to promote a sense of racial harmony and unity to overcome the ills that afflict so manyof the mass of Trinidadians of African and Indian descent while the hustlers, parading as intellectuals, acdemics and social commentators continue to propagate racism.

A kind of stirring has been taking place in sections of the Trinidad and Tobago media as a consequence of a recent intervention by the United States-based Trinidadian academic, Selwyn Cudjoe, to launch something publicised as a "National Association for the Empowerment of African People".

There was also his related attempt at revisiting an old controversial issue about "the recalcitrant minority" - a concept associated with Williams by his critics and which his defenders insist was not an attack on Indians.

The vituperations of Cudjoe about Trinidadians of African descent facing "extinction" and of being relegated to "playing a diminishing role in the governance and business" of Trinidad and Tobago, are being sustained by his opposites in the ethnic camp of Trinidadians of Indian descent.

One of them - a media contributor, Kamal Persaud - has gone as far as urging the creation of an "Indo-Caribbean nation", arrogantly assuming in the process the right to speak for the mass of Caribbean citizens who are Hindu and Indian, in countries like Suriname and Guyana as well as in Trinidad and Tobago.

This is as insulting and degrading to Caribbean people of Indian descent - Hindu, Muslim or Christian - as those claiming to speak in the name of the "African people".

Which 'African', which 'Hindu' or 'Indian' gave these elements any mandate to so entangle them in a race game that could have dangerous consequences?

The association of Williams as a "wild version of Forbes Burnham" is one of the most slanderous attacks on the late Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister to have come from a Trinidadian.

It also reveals the same kind of racism and opportunism associated with those sullying the image of academics with their writings about marginalisation of 'Afro-Trinidadians'. Or worse, their "extinction". The Cudjoes and Persauds have their counterparts, most tragically, in other West Indian societies.

In post-elections Guyana, the race weapon remains very attractive to the main opposition People's National Congress (PNC) of Desmond Hoyte. It is a constant threat in the PNC's politics of destablisation in Georgetown - the kind of crude politics never engaged in by the PNM in its long years of power which it held, at all times, on the basis of free and fair elections.

Ultimately, and hopefully sooner than later, the primary contenders for political power - the People's Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/Civic) and the People’s National Congress (PNC) - will settle down to burying the hatchet and work out a formula for meaningful cooperation, if not initially the sharing of power, a forumla that comes to terms with years of racial insecurity among Guyanese of Indian and African descent.

If they succeed, they can then be in a position to offer some model type of governance to Trinidad and Tobago as it seeks to cope with its own problem of racial divisions.

For now, however, I think that Trinidad and Tobao, for all its current crimes and other problems, is a less polarised society than Guyana and should be spared from the prescriptions of those fanning the flames of racism - whether in the media, at the university or through the medium of the calypso.