Ravi Dev column

Kaieteur News
April 1, 2007

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World Cup and the consequent visiting relatives have forced me to defer for another week my contribution to the discussion with Mr. Clarence Ellis (joined by the Peeper and most recently Mr. Dennis Wiggins).

In the wake of the commemoration of “the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade” I offer the following article published after the PPP had won the 1992 elections.

“Social Psychology has shown that whenever groups are thrown in contact with each other, the members form opinions of each other in terms of a collective assessment. This overall categorization is a distillation of the individual social evaluation process which occurs whenever two or more persons meet.

We all "size up" each other, even if only at an unconscious level. These categorizations are "stereotypes". Thus in Guyana , Indians are supposed to be mean/thrifty, uncultured/"own cultured", and docile/peaceful. While Africans, are presumed to be spendthrift/generous, cultureless/civilized, and aggressive/strong.

The irony is that the two groups, in using the same yardstick of the white colonial, basically agree with each other's evaluations as the hyphenated labels demonstrate, they only give a positive name to themselves and a negative to the "other".

In Guyana , then, "race" has come to be accented as a classification which can describe the social behaviour of its members. It is this acceptance which can lead to many discriminatory practices: since Africans don't make good clerks or Indians good soldiers, why hire them? In light of the Government's proposal to establish a Commission of Racial Equality, we ought to query as to how sound are these conclusions.


"Race" has been a very fluid, changing concept. The early civilizations such as Greeks, Indians, Chinese, etc. did not distinguish so much on "race" as we know it today as on cultural characteristics. Outsiders were "barbarians".

In 1776 however, in addition to such notable occurrences as the American Declaration of Independence and the publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, the first systematic racial classification based on the physical characteristics of groups was introduced: Blumenbach's "On the Natural Variety of Mankind."

We now had the White, Black, Brown, Yellow and Red Races.

In the century following, theories of race developed in tandem with the "scientific" imperative to classify. This is a very neutral sounding term which most people accept even today. But all classifications are based on some schema which presupposes some value. The classificatory schemes of science during the nineteenth century were imbued with the evolutionary paradigm proposed by Darwin for "the origin of species".

This classificatory vision dictated a hierarchical ordering to phenomena and objects from the plants of Linneaus to the atoms of Mendedev. Everything was now automatically arranged as "higher" or "lower" in the minds of the common man: race included.

From the early criteria of external physical characteristics [phenotypes] of mankind, from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries investigations into the genetic basis of heredity [genotypes] shook the foundations of "racial types".

Traits within populations were shown to be just as significant as between populations. Thus genetically one could speak of "clines". A gradient of change in measurable genetic characters, e.g. skin colour or hair texture.

Many scientists abandoned the classificationary scheme of "race" since it did not have much explanatory value.

However, there continued to be investigations into what was defined as the evolution of "geographical races". Groups of people may have been isolated for long period away from extensive contracts, and may have developed differently.

After all, the perceptible physical differences between Africans and Chinese let's say, called for explanations. This line of research is of interest to us in Guyana .

Two processes were proposed to occur.

Organic evolution, which leads to changes in the gene pool of the group, and superorganic evolution, which concerned itself with the sociocultural development of the said groups. This burning question, of course is whether there is a causation between these two processes in addition to the observed correlations.

It is now conceded that while the word "race" will continue to be used, at best it refers to generally shared characteristics derived from a "pool" of gene e.g. skin colour and hair texture. There has been no definitive proof that there are any great differences in the gene pools of "geographic races" which would lead to marked differences in intelligence, let's say. It is also conceded that the environment, including cultural practices, does also affect the gene pools. However, for humans, with the shrinking of even the "global village" it is unlikely that this process will be significant.

A classification, we must always remember is a tool. It is supposed to assist us in understanding the phenomena it organizes, with maybe some predictive value.

But what has the classification of mankind into races been used for?

Mostly by the Whites, from the eighteen century onwards to justify the colonization and division of the world into Empires. After all, the inferior races were being done a favour to have the White man lift up his "burden".

The concept of race was used as a hegemonic devise to compel the subjugated group to accept their condition. It was also used to justify the extermination of whole groups since if evolutionary theory showed that only the "fittest" survived, maybe it was the duty of the self-selected fittest to assist the process. This invidious notion of race still survives and it is this which must be eradicated.


In Guyana , race has been used in the invidious sense. That is, a social formation, where physical, phenotypical, biological differences are given a social significance in the former determining the latter.

For example, that blacks are less intelligent than whites as Professor Jensen claims. Since the fifties, as we have pointed out elsewhere, the term "ethnic group" has become accepted as the expression to describe a group based on its common origin and shared cultural characteristics. Thus "ethnic group" captures the biological and cultural nexuses of many groups, without the implications of "race" that biology is solely determinative of social practices.

In Guyana, "race" has been used in the sense of "ethnicity" with the pejorative bias. For example the Portuguese, who are part of the "White race" were never so classified by the British colonials, because Portuguese came as indentured servants, and were culturally and religiously distinct, especially in the early phase.

The Biological/genetic commonalities which would have rationally collapsed Portuguese into the "White" group, were dismissed by the social imperative. Today, "race" and "ethnicity" are used interchangeably in Guyana and herein lies some problems for any Commission on Racial Equality.

This is because for purposes of discrimination it might be necessary to define what are the “races”. This would become important for instance when affirmative action programs are initiated.

If for instance there is a program to increase the number of Amerindians in the Bureaucracy … does that include, "buffiandas". Are Douglas, African or Indian or a separate "race"… these are the practical issues which can tie up judicial process and therefore must be clarified as threshold issues.”