AS the world is forced to come to terms with the multitude of ways in which people of colour have suffered centuries of systemic oppression, tensions and emotions have been running high. Celebrities, business leaders, politicians, academics and the person on the street are all ready and willing to take sides, and to shout their opinions on the matter from the rooftops—or, as is more often the case these days, on various social media platforms.
Here in Trinidad and Tobago, we share different views on the relevance of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which has emerged in the United States of America as a direct response to the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police. Some have staged protests outside of the American Embassy in solidarity with the BLM movement, while others have felt the need to assert that All Lives Matter.
Whichever side of the fence one finds oneself, the fact that members of the African diaspora, across the world, and here in Trinidad and Tobago, do not enjoy the same levels of success as other ethnic groups is incontrovertible. This, of course, is a hard but necessary pill to swallow. Confronting the current reality, however, is the only way meaningful change can be effected.
“How can the former executive director of one of the largest commercial banks in the region claim that ‘his’ people are disadvantaged and not as successful as others?” one might ask. Well, in all my years at the helm of a financial institution, I was able to support many persons on their way to achieving millionaire status.
The sad reality, and it haunts me to this day, is that I could count on one hand the number of persons of African descent who were able to achieve that status. This was not due to any bias on my part, and it is certainly not an indictment on the financial institution at which I worked. I have no doubt similar trends can be perceived in every financial institution in Trinidad and Tobago. This is so because of certain systemic issues that prevail in our society. In the first instance, ownership of physical assets is a critical ingredient in securing financial assistance. As such, it cannot be disputed that those who have access to and ownership of those assets have an inherent advantage.
Additionally, business itself, particularly retail, is fraught with risk. In banking, risk is anticipated and mitigated by security. Obtaining a facility from a financial institution is primarily about assessing risk, entrepreneurship and character (a judgment call to some extent) and, as such, there must be a connection in some way between the applicant and the individual processing/interviewing the person.
Finally, one major assumption in any emerging business is that it will receive the support from a wide cross-section of the community. The ones who survive and thrive are usually the ones who receive that support. The ones who do not typically never make it off the proverbial ground.
These are factors that impact everyone. However, due to the way in which our society is structured, persons of African descent are often unable to access the support systems that help members of other ethnic groups thrive.
The disparities are obvious at a quick glance. The schools that are not as successful as others can be found in communities that are predominantly Afro-Trinidadian. A review of the Ministry of Education’s Academic Performance Index (AIP) Report 2016 reveals that over 80 per cent of the 78 primary schools under academic watch are in the areas of Port of Spain, St George and St Patrick.
Another disparity can be seen in the justice system: while members from all groups engage in criminal and gang activity, the numbers are disproportionately skewed towards those of African descent. Meanwhile, the number of persons of African descent in business and in management has diminished significantly over the years.
The disparity between the fortunes of this group and others is cause for concern at both local and global levels. In 2015, the United Nations responded to this looming crisis by declaring an International Decade for People of African Descent. That declaration, under the theme: “Recognition, Justice and Development”, provided a framework for the undoing of some of the systemic oppression and inequality faced by persons belonging to that group. Over five years have passed, less than five are left, and what have we done here in Trinidad and Tobago? At best, not enough!
Part of the challenge, of course, is that many of us do not view inequality as a systemic problem that must be dealt with at all levels. We have bought into the Western, capitalist idea that the individual bears sole responsibility for their success or failure, history and current extenuating circumstances be damned!
This, of course, is a fallacy, a distortion of the truth that absolves us, and the rest of society, of any responsibility to our vulnerable brothers and sisters. It is easier for even the “successful” ones among us to trivialise the problem by looking at their own successes and making the point that “if I could make it, why can’t they?” The reality which we face is that the few who are “making it” are getting smaller and smaller and represent the exception, not the norm.
Having spent half a decade on the African continent, I witnessed many traditions, customs and beliefs that did not survive the Transatlantic journey to the Caribbean. Customs like showing gratitude by offering a gift, and providing support to members of your community are lost to us in the Caribbean.
Along with language, religion, rites of passage, generational wealth, family and kinship systems—they form the building blocks of the African community, providing the trellis or support on which the young vines can grow and thrive.
To expect a group to succeed without these fundamental systems, is like expecting a man to survive in the dead of winter without a winter coat. To make matters worse, those walking along comfortably in their winter attire, ask him perplexed without the coat why he stands there shivering, unable to move!
Again, this is an international issue that is recognised by the United Nations! In providing a background to the 2015 declaration, the UN drew reference to the fact that: “Whether as descendants of the victims of the Transatlantic slave trade or as more recent migrants, they constitute some of the poorest and most marginalised groups. Studies and findings by international and national bodies demonstrate that people of African descent still have limited access to quality education, health services, housing and social security.”
The problem before us is an old and complex one that can never be fixed with platitudes and one-off events. It requires careful and, dare I say, fearless analysis in order for the right strategies to be found and implemented.
I say “us” because this is a societal issue. Persons of African descent make up 34 per cent of our population. As we thrive, the country will as well. If old and outdated systems of oppression are allowed to remain however, our society, as a whole, will become increasingly unstable.
Just look at the US. We might think that the massive civil unrest we witnessed on our television screens could never find its way here. We must take warning, however, from the old adage that “if your neighbour’s house is on fire, wet your own”.
Besides seeking to prevent an impending and inevitable crisis, we should also be actively pursuing the kind of future we want for ourselves and our children. That alone is reason enough to fight the classism and racism that pervade at any level in this country. If we are to truly build a new society, we must disassemble the paradigms and have the courage and temerity to adopt new ways of thinking.
So what do we do?
Part II tomorrow.
• Author Robert LeHunte is a former minister of public utilities.