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Orville Taylor: USA and Jamaica: closer than you might think

Published:Thursday | July 9, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Jamaican policemen examine a crime scene along Spanish Town Road, Kingston, on June 11. Although a Transparency International survey indicated that Jamaicans believed 86 per cent of the police force was corrupt, only 12 per cent said they had actually paid a bribe.

So someone, an academic and social scientist, seems a trifle annoyed that consistent with our training, I have attempted to ontologically verify the theories and prejudices we have about Jamaican society.

I can reproach Pastor Hellraiser with the inconvenient truth that the Bible didn't say, "In the last days, children shall be having children" show that the majority of Jamaican households are not fatherless, or that US data debunk the myth that most black women are on welfare, and despite the one in 100 Americans who are in prison, there are more African-American males in college than behind bars.

So, please wait for the apology, which will come on September 31, because I'm sure it is on your personalised calendar.

Nonetheless, let me slowly elaborate again. Contrary to the headline of the letter on Tuesday ('Taylor in denial of Jamaica's rights abuses', Gleaner), I am not in denial. With the freest press in the Americas, Jamaicans routinely and unrestrictedly report abuse. However, my point is that we have an exaggerated view of the negatives in our society, and external groups and foreign countries jump on these without bothering to see how accurately the anecdotes represent the norm. In the academy, we use data, not hyperbolised individual stories.

My examination of the USA is necessary, since much of the guidance and pressure regarding our human-rights record come from that country, our closest and most powerful ally. It is just natural that anyone with sense would look and see what examples there are to guide our own policies and approaches.

Thus, we do not have the luxury of building fake images of America either. By highlighting American best practices, I am able to state to what extent we measure up to their standards.

However, I cannot be a hypocrite and exaggerate the negatives of Jamaican society beyond what the statistics say. Worse, elements in both our societies lobby powerful groups and the US government itself to take recriminating and punitive action against us, without empirical foundation.

measurements needed

My position is unambiguous. Jamaica has issues with police brutality, social violence, human-rights violations, and corruption. But is anyone interested in ascertaining how serious these problems are? Or do we just say, "It is the worst in the world?" Few public commentators ride the Government and Opposition more than I do, as regards corruption. But to tackle the problem, we need measurements.

None of my colleagues in media shows any interest in moving past the Corruption Perception Index, from Transparency International, which, at 38 per cent, says that Jamaica is believed to be a very corrupt country. Using the police with 'corporal' tunnel syndrome as the poster boys of panhandling corruption, 86 per cent of Jamaicans thought that our cops were corrupt. Yet, when put to the test by the same survey, only 12 per cent of Jamaicans say they ever paid a bribe to Officer Dibble.

In fact, USAID paid American taxpayers' money and, using a cadre of international and American experts, produced an awesome study titled 'Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas'. Based at the prestigious Vanderbilt University, the team, headed by Professor Elizabeth Zechmeister, revealed some striking human-rights and democracy similarities between Jamaica and the USA. True, no one else bothered to juxtapose the data of the USA and Jamaica; so, I did, in order for us to understand what we are truly measuring.

To the surprise of many, only 9.8 per cent of Jamaicans in 2014 say they have had to deal with corruption from any source. In comparison, 7.8 per cent of Americans had the same experience - a statistical dead heat.

Yet, precisely because of how our freest press in the Americas presses the buttons, 78.1 of Jamaicans believe that government is corrupt, compared to 66.3 per cent of Americans. We are not a rogue state where our corrupt public officials and killer cops act with impunity, and where gays generally live in mortal fear of being attacked daily.

no trust for justice system

Americans, however, not surprisingly, trust their police more, with 54.4 per cent of Americans versus 38.3 per cent of Jamaicans. Other studies show much lower confidence among African-Americans. Other numbers are closer.

In regard to trust in the justice system, it is 46.6 per cent for Americans and 41.1 per cent for Jamaicans. And 56.1 per cent and 52 per cent of Americans and Jamaicans, respectively, believe that the justice system will punish the guilty. Nonetheless, an identical 36 per cent of Americans and Jamaicans, alike, support vigilante justice. Yup, mob killing and lynching.

On the average, 27 per cent of Americans and Jamaicans feel insecure in their daily activities. Around 65 per cent of Americans express satisfaction with their police, compared with 56 per cent of Jamaicans. Despite our greater homicide rate, America has an overall higher crime rate, with 112 per 100,000, versus our 100, and robberies and burglaries are more than five times higher in the USA, 663 per 100,000, with 122 per 100,000 for Jamaica. Fewer Jamaicans experience crime in Jamaica than Americans, and a higher percentage of Jamaicans (42 per cent) believe that the State can protect them than the USA - 38 per cent.

For me as a patriotic Jamaican, my biggest problem is murders by, and of, mostly young men. Moreover, 90 per cent of the killings are with guns, and despite the narrative about guns from Haiti, 80-plus per cent of the firearms come from the USA. It is in this area that the international help must come, but it must be informed by data; not anecdotes and amplifications.

Here, I stand in the same shoes as President Barack Obama, because guns are too easy to come by in the USA. Beyond the scrutiny of our security forces regarding the use of deadly force, we need to be able to track illegal guns back to the American sources who may have even legally bought them; stem the tide to our shores; and make the guilty who supply us pay.

- Dr Orville Taylor, senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host, is the 2013-14 winner of the Morris Cargill Award for Opinion Journalism. His just-published book, 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets', is now available at the UWI Bookshop.

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