Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s labelling of Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley as an Oreo at a political meeting in Claxton Bay, last Monday, is symptomatic of the race talk that has historically been part of TT politics.
Moreover, there will be no let up in the trend if the politics continues in its existing vein, academics noted in separate Sunday Newsday interviews this week.
“The whole political climate is characterised by racism,” observed historian Brinsley Samaroo, professor emeritus of UWI, St Augustine.
He said race talk was common in countries where there were two major political parties dominated largely by two ethic groups.
In TT’s case, Samaroo said the People’s National Movement (PNM) and United National Congress (UNC) were dominated by people of African and East-Indian descent.
“In view of that larger ethnic context in which the politics operates then these comments are going to come from both sides continuously because that is the nature of the politics in which we don’t necessarily fight each other on ideological grounds. We fight on personal grounds and on ethnic grounds.”
Saying Persad-Bissessar’s comment was in “poor taste,” Samaroo observed that Rowley and others also were not exempt from the discourse.
“These statements of poor taste are coming regularly from both sides of the political spectrum. And while one might be disappointed, one is not surprised because it is all par for the course.”
Samaroo went on: “What happened there with the Oreo comment is typical in an ethnically-charged political situation and I think it will continue from both sides. It is not anything strange and is to be unexpected.”
Saying the race talk will not stop simply by people condemning the statement, Samaroo urged citizens to “reconsider our historical situation and re-engineer the whole philosophy of the country.”
Samaroo contends that very few people understand the seriousness of the ethnic cleavage in the society–one which he feels the political parties have continued to use to their individual advantage.
“So, why would you want to cease a situation that is to your political and personal advantage. So, I don’t think it will end in a very long time, unfortunately.”
Finding its genesis in the two-party UK model, which, the British felt could have been replicated in all of their colonies, Samaroo reasoned they never took into consideration the social construct of societies in which such a system naturally morphed into two ethnic groups.
Citing TT and Guyana as examples, Samaroo said: “The reason why you did not have a similar ethnic situation in Barbados is because Barbados is predominantly of African descent, but in areas where you had people of different ethnic descent, the two-party system naturally morphed into two racial parties.”
However, Samaroo said the problem could be solved through “serious constitutional reform that seeks to bring the races together rather than to keep them separate, as it is now operating.”
He added: “Constitutional reform is one important way of reordering the whole political system from what the British imposed on us to devising something that is more relevant to our social and economic situation. That is what we have been unwilling to do for the longest while as a result of which the situation remains.”
The historian said TT was racially-polarised long before Dr Eric Williams and Rudranath Capildeo entered politics.
“But nobody has been able to do anything to change it largely because people are not confronting the major problem of constitutional reform which would make people work together rather than against each other. I think that is what we have to do.”
Still, Samaroo does not believe Persad-Bissessar’s Oreo comment would affected her support as UNC political leader.
“Her support remains her support and those who are against her will remain against her regardless of the circumstances in the same way the PNM’s skit (at the party’s sports and family day in Chaguanas on August 12) featured the disrobing of a woman of her sari and there was a lot of anti-PNM comments. That would not change the PNM support and make it different from what it is now.”
Political analyst John La Guerre offered another perspective, saying race has traditionally been used by parties, “if the politicians and political elites believe they can get votes of it.”
“But if it no longer has electoral value, it will disappear.”
Observing that TT was changing at a rapid rate, La Guerre believes race no longer had the appeal it once did. “I don’t think the race issue alone, even the ancestral overtones of race, will have much appeal unless it is combined with other things,” he told Sunday Newsday.
“What we call race is a rough category and it combines elements of class, colour, history, settlement, group identification. It depends on which group you identify with.”
Noting many traditional Afro and Indo communities were now becoming integrated with different races, La Guerre observed that governments’ housing policies over the years have also changed the nature of constituencies, resulting in some of them becoming marginal.
“So, that appeal to race alone will not bring victory. It has to be combined with other elements. That is how the analysis has to focus.
“This is why you found for the first time in 1986 and in 1981, the PNM started to lose some ground because people could no longer go back to the old slogans of 1956 because new generations had come as a result of universal education, from primary to university level– a major revolution that Williams brought about in Trinidad.”
La Guerre, UWI professor emeritus of government, recalled that up to 1960, over 60 per cent of the East Indian community were illiterate.
“Now, it is difficult to find an illiterate Indian. The Africans were the educated people.”
With the emergence of a new middle class, La Guerre said, people started living in different places to the extent that “race no longer has the power to drive as it had before.”
Nevertheless, La Guerre, a former Equal Opportunity Commission chairman, said race still played what he considered to be a minor role in the election of the maximum leader in a party “because the broad image requires that.”
“But Trinidad is a very mixed society, with Amerindians, creole and other segments. But for political purposes, you claim kinship with this and that group.”
In her address at the Union Presbyterian School, Persad-Bissessar said Rowley was the Oreo of the one per cent (the wealthy, largely thought of as the Syrian/Lebanese community) whom she claimed, controlled the Government while the rest of the population was made to suffer.
La Guerre, who admitted he had not heard her address, said many black people display white values.
“In the US, there are black people with American accents and look down on Caribbean blacks because every person wants to feel they are slightly above the other.
“It is about status and in TT the values are predominantly white. People don’t even know what is the African of East Indian heritage.”