TT IS A small country, but when it comes to commemorating the end of slavery, we are a trailblazer: we were the first country to introduce a public holiday to mark the event. But even as we do so this week, a debate is raging about whether emancipation achieved true freedom.
How do we define real emancipation? And what does it mean when, for example, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley can say that, “in a diverse society aiming to do well, African people are not doing as well as we expected or as well as we might?” Both questions are linked.
When slavery was abolished, the conditions that gave rise to it did not disappear. When we speak of racism, we tend to see things in black and white, in cardboard cutout terms. So it is hard for us to understand, at times, why race should matter when so much time has passed, when so many changes have occurred, when so many milestones have been achieved.
Our country has a commendable history of maturity when it comes to handling these matters. We are able to freely discuss race and its implications. We never allow tensions to come to a boil, we condemn acts of violence, we desist from the ugly tendencies that have driven other countries to bloodshed and sectarian infighting.
But racism remains a subtle and complex matter. It takes the form of overt acts of discrimination as well as more hidden forms. Institutional racism is a matter which is often overlooked. We ignore the systems that ossify privilege and power, concentrating them in specific patterns.
So in response to Rowley’s remarks, our response should be to take them up as an invitation to interrogate this matter. Are people from certain backgrounds lagging behind when it comes to certain professions or fields? Which ones? What do the statistics at the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) tell us about the number of complaints filed?
According to a recent survey by the EOC, crime, unemployment, corruption and the economy are the most pressing concerns on the minds of citizens, followed by fears of discrimination/racism. Interestingly, the survey suggests worries about discrimination have increased in relative prominence since 2011.
The EOC survey found that 92 per cent of people believe discrimination is a problem in TT, with people of mixed race perceiving racism more than any other group. People who identified as “East Indian” and “other” perceived less discrimination while “mixed African/East Indian” and “mixed others” perceived more.
Emancipation Day is a good time to address these perceptions and the lingering plight of people of African descent who have fallen behind in our society. But in so doing we must be mindful that this must be a continuous project of self-examination, not something we move off once the holiday is over.