Wed | Oct 28, 2020

Peter Espeut | How racist are we really?

Published:Friday | August 14, 2020 | 12:24 AM
Dr Keith Rowley
Dr Keith Rowley

The view (often expressed) that in Jamaica we have no problems with race prejudice, but only class prejudice, is naïve and false. We sociologists – whose business is to study race and class issues – know better. The recent furore over the decorative hairstyle of a five-year-old child by persons claiming systemic endemic racism, should be sufficient evidence for the doubting: race is a big issue in Jamaica.

Racism in our Caribbean neighbours Guyana and Trinidad is much more obvious. Those former sugar-producing colonies developed later than Jamaica, and felt forced to recruit indentured labourers from India to work the plantations alongside the descendants of formerly enslaved Africans. Today, with nearly equal numbers of African- and Indian-descent voters, their politics is divided along ethnic lines, and with almost all the political spoils going to the victors (we know about that here), general elections are racial races.

In the 1960s, the contest was between the Afro-Guyanese, led by Forbes Burnham, and the Indo-Guyanese, led by Cheddi Jagan. Burnham’s unbroken run as prime minister/president of Guyana from 1964 to 1985 was accompanied by repeated accusations of Afro-supremacy, authoritarianism, state-sanctioned violence, electoral fraud, and corruption, and yet other Caribbean nations – all Afro-Caribbean-dominated, which included Jamaica – were largely uncritical of his undemocratic and racist behaviour. In fact, Guyana in South America – the most inaccessible country in the region – was rewarded by setting up the CARICOM Secretariat there. It is not unreasonable to say that Jamaica may have supported racism, cronyism and corruption in Guyana – at least by its silence.

In Guyana’s March 2020 general elections, the Indo-Guyanese party won the elections, but for months the Afro-Guyanese incumbent refused to concede. President Irfaan Ali was only sworn in last Sunday. Did Jamaica speak up?

Monday’s general elections in Trinidad and Tobago were also fought along racial lines, with the majority Afro-Trinidadian People’s National Movement (PNM) winning by 22 seats to the 19 won by United National Congress (UNC), a perceived Indo-Trinidadian party. On Tuesday, Naila Ramsaran, a relative of the owners and employee of popular drinks manufacturer Ramsaran Dairy Products, said ... ”I hope [Prime Minister Dr Keith] Rowley starts putting contraceptives in their water supply, yes, because these cockroaches keep populating and the only thing they know to do is vote…”.

She later issued an apology, and was also fired from the company – but it is very clear that Trinidad and Tobago is a divided country.

PLAYING RACE CARD

In Jamaica, our elections are not fought along racial lines, for we are a majority black country; but that has not prevented politicians playing the race card during election time.

Even superficial observation reveals that opposition to our national motto – ‘Out Of Many, One People’ – is strong, and growing stronger. Our history, with transitions from slavery to a sort of freedom, and from colonialism to a sort of independence, means that Jamaica today is populated by descendants of those who benefited from slavery and colonialism, and those who still suffer disadvantage and exploitation.

The propaganda of 1962 was that the descendants of slaves and masters would build something new out of the shambles of the past, a level playing field where social benefits would accrue by virtue of personal achievement, rather than due to the accident of birth. After 58 years, that aspiration of ‘out of many, one people’ is still unrealised, and the exploited and disadvantaged are restless.

We pretend to live together as one, but a volcano is about to explode.

Now we are told that Jamaica has only black history, and that the sum total of a person’s contribution to history is to be simplistically valued solely on their relationship to slavery. Whatever good John Wolmer, Martin Rusea, Thomas Manning, Robert Hugh Munro, Caleb Dickenson, and Charles Drax might have done in endowing schools in Jamaica, is discredited by the fact that they owned slaves. Revisionists now discredit the efforts of Wilberforce, Clarkson, Sturge, and Macaulay towards Emancipation, and give all the credit to Sam Sharpe and Bussa.

Any place or street in Jamaica named after a slave owner or colonial, or after somewhere in Britain, must be sanitised and Africanised. In my opinion, we are not Jamaicans, but Africans, and during the World Cup of football we must not support Argentina, France or Italy, but Nigeria, Cameroon or Ghana.

We should do away with oppressive European clothes, languages and religions – all of this is racism by another name, pure and simple. If we don’t believe in our motto, then let’s change it. I guess we will have to rename Jamaica as ‘New Africa’.

Peter Espeut is an environmentalist and development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.