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Sat Maharaj's Two Percent Fiction

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: September 05, 2004

In June 1958 when Eric Williams repudiated the shenanigans of a "recalcitrant and hostile minority" who betrayed the aspirations of the nation he had in mind the activities of people such as Sat Maharaj and Devant Maharaj, executive members of the Maha Sabha, whose only vision of Trinidad and Tobago is a racially-divided nation. While the younger Maharaj is busy giving out Indian awards (and he has every right to do so), the other, in true recalcitrant style, is busy threatening the nation. If you don't adhere to our proposals, he says, we will appeal to "the international community for economic, cultural and other interventions" ("Secrets on the Census," TG, August 25).

Sat's latest contentions revolve around the figures of the census, leaked to him by one of his moles in the CSO office. According to available information, Indians consists of 40.03 per cent of the population (or 446,273 persons) while Africans constitute 37.5 per cent or 418,268 persons, a difference of approximately 28,000 persons. The mixed group which he incorrectly calls an "ethnic group" consists of 20.46 percent or 228,089 persons whereas "other groups" stand around two percent or about 9,850 persons.

In the first instant it is helpful to be precise in our language. Even if we accept the figures presented by Mr. Maharaj, Webster's Dictionary defines a minority as "the smaller in numbers of two groups." Since Mr. Maharaj identified four groups in the population it is not entirely correct to say that "the African population is a minority in T&T." In this definition, the Indians also constitute a minority in T&T's population as do the mixed population. Although the Indians might constitute a majority, it is much better to speak of them as constituting one of the several minority groups in T&T since they are fewer than fifty percent of the population.

Mr. Maharaj also errs when he calls the "mixed population" an ethnic group and herein lays a major problem of his analysis. Although one can speak of racial groups-Africans, Europeans, etc-within each racial groups there are distinct ethnic groupings. Within the African race, for example, there is a Hausa or an Ibo ethnic group which suggests that race is not necessarily coterminous with ethnicity. Therefore, it is incorrect to categorize members of a "mixed population" as an ethnic group although they prefer not to identify with either the Africans or the Indians.

It is precisely the fluid nature of such categories that make it so difficult to accept Mr. Maharaj's conclusion that the number of Africans in the society has declined. He is brave enough to contend that "despite the heavy migration to North America by Indians under the regime of ANR Robinson's National Alliance for Reconstruction (1986-1991), the Indian percentage of the population has held steady." Is Mr. Maharaj prepared to argue that in spite of this migration, the fertility rates of Indians increased in sufficient quantities to replace that "heavy migration" or is it that in an age of "racial fluidity" fewer persons are prepared to subscribe to fixed categories of race and/or ethnicity?

Africans, rather than Indians, are more inclined to define themselves as mixed given their cosmopolitan nature, the different color spectra within the race, and their varied religious beliefs. Such tendencies allows for a more fluid description of self and racial identity among Africans.

This is why racial identities are so much more elastic within the US and Brazil. For the longest while, many Brazilians never identified as black (they called themselves Brazilians) even though they were visible black as we have come to use the term. Beginning in 1850 and up through 1920, "mulatto" was a category in the US census. "Mulatto" was defined generally as a person of "mixed blood," and/or a person of with "any perceptible trace of African blood." The US census of 1890, asked Negroid persons to choose among "four ethnic labels: black, mulatto, quadroon and octoroon, depending upon the degree of white blood in their ancestry" (New York Times, August 29, 2004). The census of 1930 removed the category "mulatto" and thereafter defined Negroid people as "Negro" or "Black." Prior to the 1960 census, census enumerators categorized respondents according to the instructions provided to them by the US Census Bureau.

In the 2000 census, a big change was made. Americans were allowed to check in more than one racial category. Nationwide, more than 2 percent of all Americans checked in more than one box although there were regional variations. Five percent of the people of the state of Washington chose more than one racial category.

In Trinidad, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the term African was used to define persons of Negroid origin even in derogatory ways. An unknown poet, writing in the Port of Spain Gazette in 1825, referred to Africans as "the sons of Afric's savage race." In his book, Trinidadiana (1890), Jose Bodu described Maxwell Phillip, someone we will call black today, as "a talented Creole" whereas Stephen Cobham's Rupert Gray, a novel written in 1907, abounds with different descriptions of Negriod people. He refers to them as "Africans," "Negro," "coloured" and "black." In the novel, a black waiter describes another black derogatorily in the following manner: "Nigga too black, sit down cose to bakra gul, tink heself guvanah."

In Trinidad and Tobago, for most of the twentieth century, many persons of Negroid origin became offended when they were called African or described as "black." In fact, if was derisive to describe a person of Negroid descent as being black. However, the Black Power Rebellion of the 1970s allowed African people to redefine their ethnic identity: some called themselves Black while others called themselves Africans. Yet, the problem of identity remained: how exactly do we call ourselves? This difficulty with identity led to Ken Valley's outburst in the House of Parliament recently.

Indians in Trinidad and Tobago never had such a problem. Their adherence to Hinduism made it easy for them to identify as Indians even though the Immigration Report of 1878 differentiated between the Madrasses and the Calcutta Indians when it came to the problem of rum-drinking (see Fair Play, June 7, 1878). Since one has to be born a Hindu-it was/is difficult to convert-such a condition tends to fix one in his or her Indianness. Being Hindu is/was easily transferable to Indian in ways that being a Roman Catholic or an Anglican are not transferable to being an African.

In light of such difficulties, what are we to make of Mr. Maharaj's two-percent fixation and how statistically important it is within our context? This is important since the substance of his argument revolves around this two percent fiction. Not content with dismissing Tobago from the equation (I don't how it is possible to dismiss an entire segment of the population because it does not fit into one's racial grid?), Mr. Maharaj arrives at the mind-boggling conclusion that the census figures "have serious implications for the disbursement of funds for education, culture, regional development and other State realignments" in T&T.

How, may I ask, one should re-distribute state funds if we found that St. James now has two per cent more Indians than it had ten years ago. Are we suppose to go around St. James and give each East Indian two dollars more now that we know they constitute two more percent of the population? Or, is it that we should give the Maha Sabha two percent more of the state funds it now receives even though the census reveals that five percent of the total Indian population changed from being Hindus to Pentecostal. What does a government do if it determines that those who identify as Indians also show a greater proclivity for becoming "born again Christians?" Should the government change its disbursement patterns because there are 28,000 fewer Africans than Indians living in the island? Conversely, should the government change its economic and education plans because there are 28,000 more Indians living in T&T?

I am willing to argue that over the last ten years the number of Africans in the nation has remained virtually the same although there might be an increased tendency among some Africans to identify as persons of mixed origins. I am also willing to argue that the problem of identity inheres within the trajectory of our historical presence in the Americas, a problem with which Indians, relatively late comers to the region and fewer in numbers, have not had to face. As for now, one needs to be better informed of the methods the census bureau used and the self-understanding of the respondents before we jump to overblown conclusions.

Dr. Melissa Nobles, a professor of political science at MIT, observed, "Identification is not, nor should it be taken automatically as a political identification or affiliation." She questions whether a fiction of two percent should "really have any bearing on distributional decisions of a government" and concludes correctly: "As an outside observer, with 20 percent of the population identifying as 'mixed,' neither Indians nor Africans can, or rather should, think about dominating the politics of the island."

Government's policy should focus on what's best for the country rather than a two percent fiction uttered by a man who is bent on securing every advantage he can manufacture for his group. The Maharaj's and their cronies will do everything in their power to dominate T&T even though it involves using the population figures to do so. Today, as we struggle to strengthen and to develop a sovereign nation, it smacks of social infantilism, intellectual insufficiency, and political immaturity to threaten our community with international intervention because one wishes to squeeze as much money out of a government as is humanly possible. Isn't it about time the Maharaj's realize that we are one nation, indivisible under a Supreme Being and sewn together by the strength and beauty of our differences.

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