Guyana Chronicle
May 20, 2003

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I have decided to revisit an editorial I wrote for the Caribbean Journal on February 7, 1998, due to its contextual relevance to Guyana today. Here it is.

A major focus of the Herdmanston Accord is dialog between the PPP/Civic and the PNC, which is quite consistent with the goal of attaining appropriate race relations in a multicultural society. However, the onus will be on the parties to move this dialog to the level of the masses. Dialog or interaction will help to reduce or eliminate racial prejudice in society. Prejudice is a negative attitude toward a whole group of people, usually ethnic or racial minority. Prejudice could be derived from ethnocentrism - where an individual believes his culture to be superior to that of another person’s culture. A very significant form of prejudice is racism.

Over the years, many institutional barriers were superimposed to reduce the frequency of interaction between the two major races. The plantation system after 1838 effectively separated the East Indians and Africans. East Indians worked on the sugar plantations in the early years, while Africans lived and eked out a living in the villages. Their most significant point of interaction or dialog was the marketplace where rigid economic exchange killed the evolution of social relations between them. The two ethnic groups, therefore, were psychologically blocked from meaningfully interacting with each other’s culture. The political Eusi Kwayanas of Guyana have immensely reinforced this interactional blockage.

Labeling the East Indian as an ‘indentured servant’ and the African as a ‘salve’, served to prevent the two races from interacting significantly. The British Government abolished slavery in 1833, so subsequent to this date, no person legally could have been classified as a ‘slave’.

The British officials then replaced the term ‘slave’ with the expression ‘indentured servant’ for the new East Indian laborer. The East Indians’ working conditions and social relations were quite consistent with the slave situation. But different labels for Africans and East Indians created a separate social consciousness for both groups, as language serves to condition one’s cognitive process.

In the context of an inadequate dialog or interaction, whatever prejudices consumed them were never given a chance to be ‘aired out’. Meaningful interaction between opposing parties is a pre-requisite for reducing or eliminating prejudice. In practice, when a person expresses prejudice against another individual, the prejudiced person plays the ‘avoidance’ game because, by definition, you do not like the person; so why would you want to mix with that individual? As this avoidance continues, there is no meeting between the persons to discuss and reconcile any differences they may have. Multiply this at the societal level, and you have large groups of people projecting prejudice against large cross-sections of the population. It’s almost as if the persons opposed to each other are segregated in time and space.

A society with racism accompanied by the twin evils of prejudice and discrimination, may experience physical segregation as in South Africa before Mandela. In Guyana, racism is not as widespread as in the case of pre-Mandela South Africa, but may exist in certain institutional corridors. The Guyana scenario may display social and not physical segregation in some quarters. In these socially segregated areas, prejudice and a lack of meaningful dialog among the people may be the norm.

In addressing the race problem wherever it exists requires identifying the socially segregated corridors, in order to infuse a culture of dialog or interaction. This is the first step in removing racial prejudice. Baseline needs of these socially segregated corridors of prejudice would have to be predetermined prior to injecting a culture of interaction. Determination of baseline needs would provide data on the economic status of the racial and ethnic groups in the socially segregated areas.

Understanding and meeting the baseline needs would induce an injection of a culture of interaction among people of diverse origins. This perspective is the contact hypothesis. This hypothesis states that contact of people of diverse ethnic origins with relatively equal status in cooperative circumstances, will make them become less prejudiced and to relinquish previous stereotypes. The roots of prejudice are based on the class structure of society, and as people begin to enhance their economic status relative to other ethnic groups, the contact hypothesis will have greater significance and produce substantial inroads into racial prejudice. However, we still have to address institutional discrimination.

Institutional discrimination points to the denial of opportunities and equal rights to individuals or groups, which stems from the normal workings of society. Discrimination can be effected on a one-to-one basis, and also by institutions in their day-to-day operations.

What the Guyana Government may have to concern itself with is how structural factors as employment, housing, health care, and governmental operations, sustain the significance of race and ethnicity. The answer may very well be located in the class structure of the society.

These issues can obstruct the growth of meaningful social relations among people in general. With dialog, these issues can be a useful framework, as a starting point, to correct any deficit in race and ethnic relations in Guyana.

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