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Sunday, July 24, 2016

The recent comments on Radio Jaagriti by Mr Satnarayan Maharaj to the effect that the late prime minister Patrick Manning was a racist drew the ire of Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley. The Leader of the Opposition, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, asked questions about whether the events recounted by Maharaj were true or not, while not agreeing on the race question.

While rejecting the view that Manning was a racist, I recognise that the challenge that has been presented here is the question of the interpretation of political and policy events. That challenge starts with the issue of recognising that in societies like ours political patronage and political actions are often cast in racial terms as a means of describing motive.

This has bedevilled our society both before and after independence. The talk of a racial divide is often confused with what is really a political divide. This has been exacerbated over the last 30 years with the fact that the country’s oldest party, the PNM, has had to rotate power with other parties since 1986.

The emergence of a real two-party system since 1991 with the emergence of the UNC as an opposition and then as a government has changed the political dynamic of the country in such a way as to blur the lines between race and politics. Before the NAR defeated the PNM in 1986, there was never any serious challenge faced by the PNM for its first 30 years of existence (1956-86).

However, its last 30 years (1986-2016) has seen frequent rotations of power in 1986, 1991, 1995, 2001, 2010 and 2015. It is this phenomenon that has created a higher degree of political angst than before about political contests. Prior to 1986 there was never any doubt about who would win elections as it was a foregone conclusion that the PNM alone was dominant.

However, the seeds of political change were always lying below the surface and the electorate was not as racially polarised as some would have us believe. The 1981, 1991, 1995, 2001 and 2007 elections bore testimony to that fact based on the outcomes with third parties having an impact on the results.

The existence of strong third parties in societies where there are supposedly strong bifurcations of voting behaviour tend to undermine the race argument. Their limited success is usually a function of the system of election.

It is often said that race is the engine of politics in plural societies. The creation of anxiety and fear are factors that usually drive political campaigns at the ground level while maintaining multiculturalism above the surface on all sides. The interplay between race, religion and ethnicity can make a lethal cocktail for any society to endure during peak periods of political activity.

Despite all of this, T&T has done quite well comparatively speaking with other developing countries. There is always the presence of something called “the race card” which can be used as a tool of guilt or mobilisation. The deeper issue is the question of socialisation and how people think. 

The recent concerns expressed by the Minister of Education about the under-performance of schools in the East-West corridor in relation to schools in central and south Trinidad is one of those markers of advancement which is crucial to the future development of the society.

Educational opportunities are equally available to all and have been increasingly so in the post-independence period, however, it is the other factors of home life, school discipline, commitment of teachers among others that can make the difference. The Minister of Education must be complimented for flagging the issue because in 20 years from now that can make the difference between young professionals and young criminals as sad as that may seem.

Dr Rowley’s response to Maharaj raised the issue of sedition largely because of the reference to race in the commentary by Maharaj. Kamla Persad-Bissessar cautioned him about the use of the term largely because there were issues of interpretation of controversial events. The fact that those kinds of exchanges can take place among political leaders in our society without the attendant violence that such exchanges would bring in other developing countries is a sign of maturity.

There are some by-products emerging from these exchanges as the Guardian reported last Tuesday that former speaker Occah Seapaul indicated that she planned to sue Prime Minister Rowley about his comments on her tenure as Speaker during a period of controversy in July-August 1995.

In general, it is usually difficult to have a civil conversation about issues of race in this society because of a preference for a psychology of avoidance of the subject itself. In raising the issue at the opening of Parliament last year, President Anthony Carmona said: “Why can we not all just get along?” (Hansard, House of Representatives, September 23, 2015, p 9).

Unfortunately, life is not as simple as that. Disagreement is as healthy as consensus in ensuring that rights and freedoms are protected. For us, race is not a crisis, but rather a reality that we have learned to live with peacefully.


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