THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF ETHNIC INSECURITY: A REJOINDER
BY PREM MISIR
November 24, 2003
I previously discussed [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] the social construction and reconstruction of race-ethnic conflict. The real target was to demonstrate the political manipulation of race-ethnic conflict. In this rejoinder, I will attempt to explain some issues integral to this conversation.
Is Guyana's race-ethnic problem not exaggerated? Is there nationwide race-ethnic conflict? Is race-ethnic conflict socially constructed and reconstructed? Are ethnic extremists perfecting the construction of race-ethnic conflict? Is the explanation of race-ethnic conflict not devoid of a class analysis? Do we have a dominant ethnic group? Are some politicians and the mass media not influencing the formation of a false reality among the masses? Does Guyana have characteristics of race-ethnic conflict similar to Bosnia, Rwanda, and 'Apartheid' South Africa? Is not the decision for introducing new political arrangements the exclusive preserve of the people? Do the current elected politicians have a mandate from the people to advocate for such new political arrangements as a new dispensation? Should discussion of such arrangements hinder the people's genuine choice? Do the Guyanese people want this new arrangement? Do the parties' 2001 election campaign manifestos support these elected representatives' advocacy? Is the PPP/C delivering goods and services to all Guyanese? Can we see evidence of social marginalization? Only the Guyanese people can genuinely answer these questions. The answers should not be left to some politicians, including wannabes, and the mass media.
No Dominant race-ethnic group
A multi-ethnic society is a rank order of ethnic groups, where each group comprises people with common cultural or physical characteristics, located in positions of dominance and disadvantage. This is ethnic stratification. Any dominant ethnic group has total access to the valued resources of society, with disadvantaged ethnic groups picking up only minimum rewards. The dominant ethnic group, generally, sustains its control, power, and privileges through prejudice and discrimination.
A dominant race-ethnic group, generally, breeds and dispenses prejudice and discrimination to sustain its power base. Guyana does not have a dominant race-ethnic group, as evidenced through both East Indians' and Africans' relatively equal access to education and jobs. Spectacular education outcomes and high-level jobs are in the hands of these ethnic groups. We do not see, for instance, only East Indians, or only Africans excelling at CXC and SSEE. Both major ethnic groups are well represented in the professions, especially in the legal, medical and teaching professions. And, indeed, unemployment and poverty do not plague only one ethnic group. Significant public projects are found in all ethnic locations. Indeed, the presence of a dominant race-ethnic group would monopolize its control, power and privilege over other groups. This is not the case in Guyana.
Guyanese history is not inundated with racial conflict but ethnic alliances. But some politicians and the mass media want us to believe that ethnic conflict pervades this land. Rodney makes the point that the case advanced of highly prevalent racial conflict in the society is inaccurate. This is what he has to say:
"...my contention is that the case for the dominant role of racial division in the historical sphere has been overstated, and that scholarship on the subject has accepted without due scrutiny the proposition that Indians and Africans existed in mutually exclusive compartments. The problems of interpretation lie not only in the marshalling of the evidence, but, more fundamentally, in the historical methodology that is applied"
Let us now look at a few facts supporting this notion that Guyana's history is not ridden with racial conflict.
Construction of Race-ethnic Conflict
Is ethnic conflict happening because it's in the blood? If it's in the blood, then it may be due to genetics. Is ethnic conflict behavior learned? This ethnic conflict tends to be commonly explained by 'blood' and 'culture'.
The CornerHouse Briefing (1999) written by Nicholas Hildyard pointed out that "Blood" and "Culture" have long persisted universally with "commonsense" explanations for race-ethnic conflict. He suggested that hatred between Muslim and Serb or between Hutu and Tutsi, must be "in the blood." (Keane, 1996); the same can be said of possible or alleged hatred between East Indians and Africans in Guyana. "Tribal hatred" comes not from "nature" or from a primordial "culture", but of "a complex web of politics, economics, history, psychology and a struggle for identity" (Keane, 1996).
Fergal Keane, a BBC Africa correspondent, explains the genocide of one ethnic group by another ethnic group in Rwanda in 1994, thus: "Like many of my colleagues, I drove into [Rwanda] believing the short stocky ones had simply decided to turn on the tall thin ones because that was the way it has always been. Yet now, two years later. . .I think the answer is very different. What happened in Rwanda was the result of cynical manipulation by powerful political and military leaders. Faced with the choice of sharing some of their wealth and power with the [insurgent] Rwandan Patriotic Front, they chose to vilify that organization's main support group, the Tutsis... The Tutsis were characterized as vermin. Inyenzi in kinyarwanda - cockroaches who should be stamped on without mercy... In much the same way as the Nazis exploited latent anti-Semitism in Germany, so did the forces of Hutu extremism identify and whip into murderous frenzy the historical sense of grievance against the Tutsis... This was not about tribalism first and foremost but about preserving the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the elite."
Keane insists that race-ethnic conflict is socially constructed. In Guyana, race-ethnic conflict is both socially and politically constructed. The ethnic conflict is not genetic or inborn and not even inevitable. Fringe-minded people and extremists steeped in sustaining their self-interests drive and manipulate the race-ethnic conflict. Their success at race-ethnic exploitation depends on an exclusion of class in the discussion.
Class-Race-Ethnicity Lived Simultaneously
A dynamic relation among the sources of inequality - race, ethnicity, and class - exists. All intergroup relations inclusive of ethnic conflict and ethnic insecurity are shaped by race, the class structure, and multi-ethnicity. All societies are characterized by some inequality. Class is an open type of stratification system in that it enables movement of people to different levels or steps of the society. In fact, in a class system, people do have opportunities to move to a higher level, to a lower level, or remain at the same level in society. If race were the dominant variable and the fact that it is a closed stratification system, then we would not have socio-economic statuses between both East Indians and Africans. This implies that race is not dominant in enabling access to the society's rewards; other variables are class and ethnicity. Further, this being the case, then contradictions in the Guyana society are manifested through an interaction of race, ethnicity, and class, and not one or the other. Surgical removal of any dimension of stratification from individuals in Guyana will yield a false reality, as the society is not controlled through race.
Clearly, people of different races and ethnicity are found at different class levels. We, therefore, can say that both Africans and East Indians in Guyana, are dispersed at the upper class, upper middle class, lower middle class, working class, lower class, and the underclass levels. Further, each ethnic group has its own class structure. For instance, within the East Indian group, there is an upper class, upper middle class, lower middle class, working class, lower class, and the underclass. The African group also contains this type of class stratification. What exists, then, are intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic class stratification. Given that a person's class position, both within his/her ethnicity and among ethnic groups, is determined by education, occupation, and income (indicators of socio-economic status - SES), then class and not race become the more significant defining feature of a person's permanent life chances. Rothman (1999:145) suggests that
"The concept of life chances focuses on the quality of life and the way that class position expands or limits access to desirable experiences such as good physical and mental health. "
The reverse is true, however, only if power holders of any society exert extensive control through racism, as through the apartheid program in South Africa. Guyana does not have anything resembling an apartheid program.
Therefore, class, race and ethnicity are lived simultaneously (Andersen & Collins, 1992:xxi) to create stratification systems, and they interact to facilitate or thwart access to social and economic rewards, intensifying the impact of any of them individually (Rothman, 1999:15-16). Rothman argues that the connection of class, race and ethnicity can be illustrated through the distribution of income. In effect, then, those East Indians and Africans who comprise the working class, will share similar occupation, income, and education characteristics. This similarity is observed for all class levels that include the major racial and ethnic groups of the society, in that the middle-class East Indians and Africans will share middle-class education, occupation, and income features; upper-class Africans and East Indians will embrace upper-class education, occupation, and income characteristics.
False Perceptions leading to False Reality
The statements cited in my paper 'The Social Construction of Ethnic Insecurity' are internalized by all ethnic groups in this society. It's mischievous and wicked for anyone to suggest that only Africans share these false perceptions. The construction of ethnic insecurity includes all ethnic groups. Therefore, whatever false perceptions develop, affect all ethnic groups. These false perceptions that help to shape all ethnic groups' reality eventually drive their behavior. But some politicians and the mass media are aggressively engaged in manipulating ethnic groups' insecurities.
PPP/C & PNC/R
The proposition is regularly made that if the PPP/C has most of its support among East Indians and the PNC/R finds its support among Africans, then we have a racist scenario. This suggestion may not be necessarily true, as no weighting is attributed to cross-over voting, however small. Another interpretation of this proposition is that since the PNC/R won 45% of the votes in the 2001 election, then it must have a voice in policies affecting this 45%. I am not aware that any party fussed about the electoral rules of engagement prior to the 2001 election campaign. Under the electoral system, the rules were clear and accepted by all contesting parties, that the party with 51% of the total votes forms the government. Under the current electoral arrangements, the PPP/C won. In a multi-ethnic society like Guyana, what we need to do, among other things, is to evaluate the impact of the Government's policies on all ethnic groups since 1992, to establish whether or not, there is the presence of equity, justice, and fair play for all. We need concrete evidence and not rhetoric.
However, since placed in the throes of governance, the PPP/C Administration has continued to make considerable attempts to include the Opposition in inputting the legislative agenda through dialogue/constructive engagement and the innovative parliamentary committee system. Current discussions of new political arrangements have a place in public debate which must include the masses, but such discussions should not disrupt the present elected Government's activities in pursuing its legitimate mandate.