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Race Matters

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: December 18, 2003

For the life of me, I do not know why Trinidadians and Tobagonians don't get up and think rather than cast their eyes in the sand and refuse to come to terms with the realities that inhere in our very condition of our being.

Some months ago I raised questions about the enrolments at the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the Trinidad and Tobago Institute of Technology (TTIT), what an education should mean for a citizen of T&T and the role it should play in the society.

I was condemned roundly by all and sundry. Not one columnist, Indian or African, came to my defence. No one person in the media could see the wisdom of my concerns.

The questions persist and continue to plague our land. Yet we continue to feign ignorance.

The latest manifestation of the problem revolves around a provision in the "Social and Economic Policy Framework 2004" in which COSTAATT suggests that the Government should "establish targeted recruitment programmes for male Trinidadians aged l7-24, especially Afro-Trinidadian males" (Express, October 28).

Not concerned with nuance of language or the distinction between the general and the specific, Subhas Panday, brother of Basdeo, thundered that this was an open form of racism against others in the country and that the UNC would take the matter to international organisations.

For reasons best known to himself, Mr Panday could not understand how an educational document could outline a proposal for the general populace (all males) and then zero in on a specific manifestation of the problem (the Afro-Trinidadian male between the ages of 17 and 24).

Ganga Singh, the person who inflicted on our nation a principal at UWI and a manager at TTIT, both East Indians, screamed indignantly:

"COSTAATT would be admitting students on 'a quota system and a Cudjoe mentality' and Government was being 'offensive' in dealing with Afro-Trinidadian male underachievement rather than male underachievement" (Newsday, Oct 28).

The Express reported that Singh accused the Government of using "'Cudjoe ideologies' and changing the paradigm of policy making to that of ethnicity (sic)." He continued:

"I agree that there is a need for measures to deal with the situation but not by sleigh of hand. The matter needed to be brought to Parliament for debate as such bias comes at the expense of women and other ethnic groups" (Express, Oct 28).

Responding to these criticisms, Keith Rowley noted: "It was a fact that the Afro-Trinidadian male was the biggest under-performer in the country and there was a need to address that issue. By addressing the problems of the Afro-Trinidadian did not mean that the East Indian was being neglected. Our policy is to create increased opportunity in tertiary education for all of our citizens. So that when we say COSTAATT will target a particular problem, and we will expand COSTAATT, that is not at the expense of 'A' to feed 'B'."

When I raised similar issues I was left out in the cold to dry. Danny Montano condemned me for "waving a racial flag." Not one member of the PNM supported me publicly and every black columnist Morgan Job, Lennox Grant, George John, Reggie Dumas, Selwyn Ryan condemned my intervention. Raffique Shah delighted in satirising my position.

Now the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost. We either deal with the problem or the problem will deal with us. This is why it is so ill-advised for the Speaker to warn:

"All this race talk in the House, its become a disgrace (sic), not only to the Chair, but to the national community... It is high time now we stop this race talk, it is not doing you all any good and it not doing the country any good" (Express, Oct 28).

With all due respect, I beg to differ with the Speaker. At this point in our history, race talk will do the nation all the good for the simple reason that we have refused to talk openly and honestly about race, a central existentialist reality of our lives. After all, how can we claim to be a "multi-racial society" and yet not talk about race, ethnic privilege, ethnic preference, ethnic balance, etc?

To say that we are a multiracial society suggests that our continuing task is either to meld the races together or to explore ways in which they can live together in productive and harmonious ways. Celebrating that the Ganges meets with the Nile, a necessary but nonetheless fructifying illusion, does not take us very far.

The only way to understand how the coming of the Ganges has impacted upon the Nile is to recognise that in a land of scarce resources and different ways of looking at the world, particularly from the religious standpoint, is to talk incessantly about race and ethnicity, acknowledging that in a multiracial society race matters.

Therefore, if we being in our national legislature with the proposition that race does not matter, we begin with a false premise, which must yield a false answer.

If we condemn those who seek to address the question as false prophets introducing false ideologies into the land, we condemn ourselves to a form of Orwellian non-speak and a strategic silencing which kills our Socrates for daring to think the unthinkably.

Socrates was charged with impiety and corrupting the youth. What was his offence? He encouraged the youth to criticise the existing order. For that infraction he was condemned to death.

Pierre Bourdieu calls this process of silencing by officialdom a form of "symbolic violence," the imposition of a "cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power" (see Reproduction in Education).

By this he means that the pedagogic action of those in charge (and by that he means education in the broadest sense, encompassing more than the process of formal education) seeks to impose its class biases upon a society through authoritarian practices rather than exploring liberating discourses of our possibilities and our realities.

Today, in T&T close to 42 per cent of our population are functionally illiterate: that is to say, they cannot read a newspaper or a medicine label. Close to 400,000 of our people live below the poverty line. Perhaps 80 per cent of the people who are incarcerated are Afro-Trinidadians. Maybe there is no correlation between these two realities. Proportionately, more Afro-Trinidadians suffer from AIDS.

Doesn't enlightened public policy demand that we explore ways to deal with these problems? And if COSTAATT decides that the educational deficiencies in males, all males, are a problem that we should look at, why should it elicit so many screams of incomprehension and indignation?

The questions raised in the legislature have little to do with racism. They have to do with the continued negations of what Dr Eric Williams called a recalcitrant minority that refuses to think critically and to face up to our national responsibilities.

Indeed, all of the talk about appealing to international institutions is simple a way to evade national responsibilities (that is what independence means) and to believe that outsiders must know better than us what ails us. Some people call this a utopian response.

It is precisely this mentality that encourages some of us run to Canada and claim political asylum on the ground that East Indians are being subjected to targeted racism and symbolic rape. This is only a variation of a similar cry that was made in 1987.

Such behaviour amounts to a betrayal of the national trust. One day we will learn that patriots stand up and fight, articulate their differences rather than appeal to the other who is always presumed to be better informed that us.

Of course, NAEAP has been perceptive. On Saturday, we will hold a conference at La Joya entitled "African People and Education". Among the questions slated for discussion are: Are African students under-performing in the sciences and why? Are teachers teaching our children? And are African parents preparing their children to be successful at school.

Such an intervention is called foresight and facing up to realities. It might be a Cudjoe ideology but our nation would only begin to realise itself when we realise that race matters and an intelligent discussion of race lies at the heart of our becoming.

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