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Classism in Jamaica

Published:Sunday | May 25, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Ronald Mason

Jamaicans love to make boast of the predominance of people of African descent in our midst. This is an axiom so true it bears no need for debate. However, it is used to mask a division that is most prevalent in our society, but very rarely spoken of in 'polite' company. The introspection that is required to address this is very painful. Peeling back the layers of the facade that passes for unity uncovers an open divide.

Jamaica is a classist society.

We have recently been through another edition of Labour Day. Instituted in 1961 and rebranded to include an element of work in 1972, the institution stumbles along. Why is there no great scene of national participation by the majority of the population? In this case, it is not plagued by a high degree of political tribalism. Both parties have bought into the day.

What happens is that the corporate entities jump on board for the public-relations and marketing value. Five hundred cases of its product offered for a fee by a major beverage company is one such example. The paint companies offer their products to show the range of colours and demonstrate the corporate goodwill. The list could go on for some more clarification, but what is missing is the fusion of all the people in full participation. Those who are perceived as the favoured ones make the corporate donations, but send the underlings to put the labour in Labour Day.

The health-care system in this country has two principal locations that clearly illustrate the classism. The Kingston Public Hospital is whispered about in certain circles. "It's down there (Uptowners do not even know where it is located)." "KPH caters to those with limited options, even where they have much more money than some who claim privilege." They do not attend the other end of the spectrum.

The Tony Thwaites Wing of the University of the West Indies Hospital is fully utilised by those who claim privilege. You will rarely, if ever, see the same persons at different times in the waiting areas of both these hospitals. Having visited both, the contrast is glaring. The contrast is to be found in location, aesthetics, staff complement, the courtesies extended to visitors, and the obvious state of the equipment.

I cannot recall an anecdote of the staff at Tony Thwaites offering to sell needed supplies to incoming patients or patients needing family members to bathe them while being patients or taking sheets to spread the bed. Nor patients being made to suffer at the hands of staff. This is standard procedure at public hospitals. Two different worlds, never to meet, with each class knowing almost instinctively where to attend.

The churches all say they proclaim the gospel according to an omnipotent saviour, yet the divisions are as stark as they could possibly be. The division which is heaped upon the heads of those 'fundamentalists' or native Pocomania devotees or Revivalists is as far away as it can get for the differences reserved for the mainstream churches. What is the basis for there to be a religious demonstration claiming the office of Bishop of Kingston or the Archdeacon of Jamaica? Do they claim leadership of all the inhabitants of this deferred geographic space?

How do you define a 'cathedral' that ends up with couple hundred worshippers weekly as contrasted with an inner-city community church that caters to thousands each week. We continue to fight for the 'reserved' space for the right class in the great beyond. Spare me.

Many years ago, the secondary schools were to be transformed by way of a national entrance exam. Even then, it was a negotiated entrance with percentages reserved to reflect the different class requirements. Horror of horrors, the helper's child was just as academically qualified to attend the alma mater of the boss. This phrase found resonance in classism. Is my child to sit beside their children? The clear implication is they might be contagious. God forbid, they might even date. What a calamity?

They send their children to boarding schools overseas. Despite nearly five decades of trying to break down the barriers, very little of the wall has, in fact, been breached. Still 285 years of pedigree. Transformation has been achieved to sustain the classism. A school that just enjoyed the reputation as being for the gentrified less capable has morphed into the top choice. Money will do that. Classism will sustain that.

The nation must address this deeply embedded classism. Listen to the deafening silence as the Government of the day imposes measures of 50 up to 100 per cent on the firearm industry. No outcry. One per cent on the bank transactions and the howling forced a retreat. All founded on classism. Meritocracy has diminished currency in this country. You may have money, lots of it, but 'a buttu in a Benz is still a buttu'.

As a country, we must find a vehicle to overcome, or significantly diminish, the class divisions.

Ronald Mason is an immigration attorney/mediator/talk-show host.Email feedback to and