The wave of protests worldwide in support of the US-based Black Lives Movement, even one in Port of Spain, earlier this month, and a backlash against posts seen as racist by several business owners reopened the debate on race relations in TT. JANELLE DE SOUZA explores the issue with eminent scholar John La Guerre.
In TT, race relations is more about group relations as opposed to oppression as
it is in the US, says John La Guerre, professor emeritus in behavioural sciences, UWI, and former chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission.
He said one factor that lead to rivalry between the Indian and African communities is that until recently, Africans were the majority group so that culture was dominant. However, from 1871 the number of Indian immigrants increased until it reached the stage now where Indians are the majority, albeit slight. Indians became more visible and, at the time, there were concerns that the Indian presence would affect the culture of Trinidad.
Another factor was the availability of education. La Guerre said after the abolition of slavery, the freed slaves were more literate. He said up to 1960, about 50 per cent of Indians were illiterate. That changed after the country’s first prime minister, Dr Eric Williams, expanded the education policy in 1956 and gave everyone the opportunity to be educated.
“Race relations is also about group relations. Once group feelings emerge, a group feels compelled to protect their turf and their interests, economic and otherwise, and they perceive their interests in group terms. It also gives you greater visibility. You are no longer an isolated individual.”
For example, he said at one time Indians used to complain that they were denied high positions in the public service, while Africans complained about a lack of presence in the economic sector.
In the US, however, African-Americans made up a mere 15 per cent of the country’s population but were the dominant group in sports as well as the inmate population in prisons.
La Guerre said in the US, many people see the population as either black or white. Because of the difference in physical features, black people stand out. That, he said, could be a contributor to the many incidents of white people calling the police on black people who were doing no wrong.
“You become highly visible and the more visible you are, the more identifiable you become...Of course I agree that all lives matter – except that some are more vulnerable than others. In case of the US, if you are black, you are more visible and therefore more vulnerable. That, I think, is the essence of the difference.”
In TT, he said, there are shades of people because the population is highly mixed racially. He said there are few people who are of a pure race. For example, he said, when the Spanish conquered TT, they did not come with many women, so many of them started families with local First Peoples. Then, he said the Arab side of North Africa was predominantly African, and Ethiopia, once known as Abyssinia, once ruled Syria, and no doubt the people mixed, so the Syrian/ Lebanese population was hardly pure either.
Instead, he said, society is still divided and classed by colour as there is still a preference for lighter skin. He said Indians especially had that problem because of deep-rooted prejudices from India’s caste system where Brahmins, who had the lightest skin, were of the highest caste and the “untouchables” had the darkest.
He said even UWI had to juggle the entry criteria in order to allow different groups in certain disciplines. Indians always wanted to go into medicine or law because “it gave you a certain degree of independence from the rest of society” since the caste system did not allow association between the castes, and Africans were classified with the untouchables.
However, he said TT is a small country so people of different groups cannot help but come into contact with each other. And increasing contact increases awareness of other groups and their problems.
He said he did not believe there was any “sustained racial hatred” against any group in TT “but sometimes people react to criticism in terms of race so sometimes there is misinterpretation of some comment, event or development.”
Politics harbours racism
When competing for political power, it is important to have an electoral base. Therefore, politicians often emphasised group problems to get more votes.
La Guerre noted that historically, the United National Congress base was the Indian community. The party’s founder, Basdeo Panday, was president of the All Trinidad Sugar and General Workers’ Trade Union from 1973 until he became prime minister in 1995. Excluding splitting from and founding new political parties, put simply, sugar workers, who were mostly Indian, became the party’s political base.
On the other hand, the People’s National Movement’s base was in urban areas to which freed slaves moved after the abolition of slavery.
“Remember, the PNM was born in Port of Spain. It was an outgrowth of the Teachers Education and Cultural Association. So it was an urban organisation and initially had an urban appeal. The party later broadened its appeal with its selection of candidates.”
Despite the emphasis on race, La Guerre said there has never been a death attributed to racial rivalry. He believed this was because of the quality of TT’s leaders over the years. He added that while there may be an occasional bias with the distribution of scholarships or contracts generally, the government worked for the benefit of all.
“Whatever you may say about our leaders, from Williams right down to (Dr Keith) Rowley, they cannot be accused of racial biases. They may have political biases but never racial biases. If Williams had racial bias, he would not have expanded educational opportunities in the way that he did.”
He said UWI also made a difference in the way people think about political and social problems.
“In fact UWI, since its establishment in 1948, has opened the eyes of so many people, not only in Trinidad but elsewhere. A lot of the increase in the quality of life in Jamaica come down, has a lot to do with UWI.”
Syrians in the mix
On June 2, Dianne Hunt of Dianne’s Tea Shop in Maraval posted on Instagram a picture of a slice of cake embellished with the words “All Lives Matter.” The statement originated as the antithesis to Black Lives Matter: it is considered to discount and diminish the focus on violence and discrimination against black people.
In the comments on her business page, there were some scathing comments while others explained that the saying “Black Lives Matter” did not mean that only black lives mattered, but that they were the focus, since they were under threat.
Hunt apologised and deleted her post, but her friend Gerald Aboud, managing director of Starlite Drugs, came to her defence on Facebook, saying that racism was different from having an opinion.
“If I don’t like Chinese people you can’t force me to like Chinese people. I may have my reasons and I am entitled to that.”
He went on to address black people specifically, saying that “we feel for all of you” but in stealing sneakers and killing their own people black people made things worse for themselves. In another post he said Venezuelans and Syrians were suffering all over the world.
“Make sure and march for them too!”
Aboud also apologised, saying he was not a racist, that he supported all lives, that his actions in life showed “only equality and fairness,” and he was sorry that comments in defence of a friend were seen as aggravating and racist.
La Guerre recalled that, at one time people in the Syrian community were identified by the suitcases they carried around to trade clothes. He said because they were a small population they had a certain amount of visibility and because they were now an important sector in the business community that could generate some envy.
However, he said those who say people have a right to dislike a race of people could go on to say they have a right to kill people if they do not like them.
“People have to use the word ‘rights’ more sensibly. Those comments represent the very worst of that person and they would incur displeasure and criticism. But in addition to that, the Syrian community, because of their economic success and their role in the economic sector, would also attract hostile comments, sometimes from competitors.”
He believed Syrians and other business people only see the violence and looting in protests in the US from a business perspective and may not analyse and assess the situation as others would.
However, he doubted that the younger generation of Syrian/Lebanese had the same mentality, so much so that some Syrians married Indians and people of other “high-coloured” groups.