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Raffique Shah


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Inequality breeds unfairness

October 10, 2004
By Raffique Shah

THERE are those who argue that racism in Trinidad and Tobago exists only in the devious minds of politicians and among a handful of individuals and organisations that would otherwise remain buried in obscurity but for their maniacal ranting. They add that discrimination by race is also a figment of the imagination of the few who want to see our relatively harmonious society degenerate into the chaos we see elsewhere, in countries as diverse as Fiji, Rwanda or Guyana. As such, they believe that the persons who put together the "Principles of Fairness" document may well be looking for ghosts where there are none.

To some extent, the arguments are valid. I have often commented on the fact that race has been a seasonal problem, meaning it comes to the fore mainly when there are elections, when the two major races are jostling for space, for power. As for discrimination, anyone who takes a panoramic view of this country will never be convinced that it exists. Success, if that can be measured by who benefits from the national economic pie, can be seen across the board. If anything, Indo-Trinidadians, whose misleaders convince them that they are the targets of discrimination, appear to be more successful, generally living under conditions far better than their Afro counterparts.

But both perceptions could also be misleading. Examining the latter, it did not take a Ralph Henry report on the distribution of income to tell me that there is no racial discrimination among those who live below the poverty line. In other words, there is equality in poverty, contrary to what most bigots of both races would want us to believe. In the case of Afros, the poverty may be more visible, in the sense that on a drive into the capital city, one cannot help but notice slum-like settlements in Beetham, Laventille, Morvant and Sea Lots. Because these districts are close to Port of Spain, they are easily identifiable. If one were to go to La Brea or parts of Point Fortin or Mayaro, one would find that the colour of poverty is little different.

Those who judge Indo-Trinidadians by what they see in commercial enclaves or in places like Valsayn, Westmoorings, the suburban developments around Chaguanas or other upscale districts, could be very wrong in their assumptions. They have only to look behind the bamboo curtain in Bamboo, behind the thriving foreign-used car establishments, to see Indians mired in poverty. Just south of the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway, off El Socorro, there is poverty. And don't even venture into the many squatter settlements in Central and South Trinidad to see "ketch-arse" no different to what obtains in Sea Lots.

Point is, this inequality is more class-based than race-driven. There were thousands of dirt-poor Afro-Trins under successive PNM governments just as there remain Indians in similar circumstances, totally deprived after six years of the UNC-in-government. The politicians will, of course, never explain that to their constituents. They thrive on the blame game, and more so on the race bogey. What will have triggered action on the part of Ken Gordon and company was the fear that the politicians were hell bent on widening the gap between the two, and the potentially disastrous fallout from such divide. And they, or that should be we (since I am among the signatories to the document), decided upon a citizens' intervention.

It is easy for politicians to dismiss the group and its intervention. They correctly point out that among the signatories are people who have never run for public office, or if they did, they were failures at the polls. Which is one facet of our democratic system that is an anomaly, the view that only when one participates in elections, and preferably comes out a winner, does one have the moral authority to speak out on issues like discrimination and fairness.

I beg to differ. In fact, it is people who do not have to face the polls, who do not need to tell the masses what they (the people) want to hear, but rather speak the truth, however unpalatable that may be, who have the credibility to so intervene, once they are sincere. Those who appended their signatures merely to appear to be non-racial or fair in dealing with others, do so to their peril. They will ultimately be exposed for what they really are. But those who believe in what the document spells out have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they have every reason to be proud of their actions, of coming forward to identify with principles that cut across race and class lines, and which may ultimately demolish the divisiveness in our society.

The document calls for fairness in the allocation of jobs in both the private and public sectors. Louis Lee Sing, speaking from the floor, insisted that fairness in the allocation or accessing of financial resources be added: that has merit since there are numerous examples of unfair treatment by financial institutions, even those that are government owned. It espouses constitutional reform, not to be interpreted as promoting proportional representation, but in overall terms, suggesting that it's time to seriously review the Republican Constitution. Who can argue against that? It calls for fairness in education, in access to health facilities, in just about every area in which all citizens are entitled to be treated fairly. What is wrong with that?

What it does not do, and I hope it never will, is call for equal numbers of Indians and Africans in, say, the public or teaching services, or in the protective services. Indeed, such jobs should be allocated on the basis of merit, nothing else. The same holds good for opportunities in education: should we descend into the abyss of allocating equal numbers of places in the better performing schools for the two main races? And if we do, what of others who make up this cosmopolitan society, the Chinese, Whites, douglas? So equity and fairness do not necessarily go hand in hand. I shake my head in disgust every time I hear certain people point to the protective services, more so the military, as an example of the racial imbalance that needs to be corrected. In like manner, I feel to puke when I hear the "other side" demand equal numbers of places in prestige schools, whatever the performance or lack thereof of the students they believe should get places based mainly on their ethnicity.

Fairness can never mean condoning mediocrity. It must also never mean the denial of opportunities to children who come from homes and environments that will never allow them upward mobility. Inequality breeds unfairness, and in a civilised society that should not be allowed to happen.