Last Thursday, in his response to a letter written by 23 Afro-Trinbagonians about the placement of black pupils in our secondary schools, Kamal Persad, coordinator of the Indian Review Committee, responded: “It is clear the under-performance of Afro-children in the education system is still at the top of the black agenda. Accordingly, these 23 persons of African descent adopted an unmistakable black race position.” (Express, January 14).
It is wise to contrast Persad’s position with a statement of Prof Brian Copeland, Vice Chancellor of The University of the West Indies, at its 2020 graduation: “As graduates of The UWI, you are beneficiaries of a public spending that covered some 80 per cent of what it costs to educate you... [You must] use your experience not just to develop yourself in your chosen careers but, even as you do so, that you do all you can to continue the fight of forming a society that better addresses the problems we face today...
“Our society cannot survive if it implodes on itself because of an impossibly large income gap, runaway poverty, or even the level of bigotry and hatred we saw on display last (week) Wednesday at the US Capitol. Yours is the challenge of fashioning a more emotionally mature and just society.” (Express, January 13)
While Persad sees the challenge outlined by these Afro-Trinbagonians as an “unmistakable black-race position”, Copeland sees our challenge as building “a more emotionally mature and just society” that contrasts with the US society in which bigotry, hatred and racism were displayed in the US Capitol on January 6.
This is why I suggested that race and racism, and the impulse of each group to hold on to its advantages are “the basic fault lines in our democracy”. We may not want to accept this truth, but the death-battle between the two major groups can result in the diminishing of our republic.
Seventeen years ago I raised this question in an address, “Afro-Trinbagonians, Racism and the Education System”. I said “no member of a multiracial society should feel smug and secure in the fact that eighty per cent of its university body should consist of one race”. Given the trajectory of our society then, I asked: “How do we envisage the distribution of jobs in the year 2015? Do we expect to see all our lawyers, doctors and engineering technologists as being of one race; and all of the security guards, our service workers at Kentucky, our street cleaners being of another race?” (trinicenter.com)
Persad and Copeland have raised this question anew: is the quest for a more equitable distribution of secondary school places a “black agenda” item, or part of a national problem? Could we achieve Prof Copeland’s vision if our universities are peopled primarily by one section of our society? How healthy is it socially if our job market is skewed in such a manner that certain “prestigious” jobs are held by one group, while the other group descends to the bottom of the social ladder holding all of the menial jobs?
Williams saw the free secondary school system as “a cradle for ‘a new nationalism’ that should result in the ‘assimilation of all the different cultural stock and racial strains in his country’”. Such a vision, according to Persad, was part of Williams’s “sinister” plot against Indo-Trinidadians although serious philosophers such as John Dewey, author of The School and Society, saw the school as a miniature society, and Louis Althusser, a French philosopher, saw the school as one of “the ideological state apparatuses” that transmit values to the nation’s children.
Williams was not successful in everything that he did, and may be faulted for initiating the shift system which had negative consequences on our primary and secondary school systems. Williams, however, saw the school as the vehicle through which to create a coherent society. In his book, Education in the British West Indies, Williams noted that the classical model foisted upon us was not necessarily the best way to move us out of our colonial position.
Most of the people who opposed the position of the 23 prominent citizens were Indo-Trinbagonians of all stripes, regardless of their political or religious affiliations. They believed Indian achievement/privilege must be maintained and protected regardless of its impact upon the society. This was not entirely unexpected. Prof Ruth Grant suggests that “as a general rule, people can be expected to pursue their own selfish interests. People who hold power can be expected to act to hold on to it—and to increase it if they can”. (Ethics and Politics)
Two weeks ago I shared my article, “A more reflective society”, with Sudhir Hazareesingh, a lecturer at Oxford University. He responded: “There are strong similarities with Mauritius: the focus on materialism and the fundamental absence of a sense of common purpose. I do wonder, taking this further, whether this is about colonialism or race, or both.”
How, then, can we talk about a common purpose when Indo-Trinidadians see the plight of African children as a “black race problem” and remain intent on expanding their power and control in the society? The siege on the US Capitol would have taught us little if we do not see how the racial schism in America threatens its very existence if it is not attended to.
Ours is one society. The plight of one must concern the other. If we do not realise that large income gaps between the groups, runaway poverty, bigotry and hatred can spell the ruination of our small society, then we are not ready to act as self-defining subjects who are prepared to work in our own best self-interest.
How much longer will we be blinded by our own eyes?
Prof Cudjoe’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.