THE greatest legacy of Jamaica’s foremost political sociologist, the late Prof Carl Stone, was his comprehensive overview of Jamaica’s class system and structure in the late 1970s to the early 1980s.
The first reason I am raising this discussion is the social ire and condemnation at the recent killing of national footballer Tarania “Plum Plum” Clarke by another young woman, reportedly during a fight over a cellular phone.
Tarania’s consummate skill, prowess and professionalism, on behalf of both her community and the nation, did not translate into significant upward social mobility for her and her family that could have removed her out of the path of that fatal entanglement.
This is the reality for many poor, working-class and inner-city Jamaican youth.
The second reason is that at the end of my lecture on social class this week one of my undergraduate students came up to me and said, “Prof, you just told my whole life story there.”
After she left the room, I shed a few tears. I remember so clearly walking many similar pathways as a child of rural poverty.
When a discussion is raised about class in Jamaica it is commonplace for the discussion to be encouraged in several directions.
First, there is the strong insistence that it is not about class; it is a race issue.
Then, there is the obligatory discussion that goes back to colonialism and slavery.
The second mechanism is to direct the conversation towards the “problems” in the US with trailer-loads of ire levelled against President Donald Trump and the atrocities facing African-Americans in the US.
Jamaica, of course, doesn’t have “those kinds of problems”. If the conversation gets too focused on Jamaica, there is always the useful cop-out—the real problem is not the classist structures; it is the fault of the individuals themselves; poor, dispossessed, lacking in opportunities and such delights because they don’t want them. Maybe they are lazy?
If that fails, dancehall is the final go-to. Dancehall reflects, reinforces, and celebrates the often necessary way of life of many very ordinary and often very poor Jamaicans.
Here, many who have been left out of the “sharing-up of the pie” find a way to make meaning of their straitened situations: “Tun dem han’ mek fashion”.
These “dancehall people” become the root of all social ills. The chicken and the egg are in a constant revolving cycle. Order is restored, and, all is well. But all is not well. One of he most explicit signals of this class problem is articulated in how access is granted to social amenities and resources.
Jamaica’s educational structures, particularly at the primary and secondary levels, are excellent locations where this is made visible.
Traditional high schools, as they were called, were set up early to educate a specific subset of this nation – those who would be leaders in all areas (commerce, politics, education, security, etc).
Over more than two centuries this morphed into an additional subset variously labelled and usually stigmatised and stereotyped secondary, comprehensive, technical, and vocational schools with different mechanisms used to filter pupils into their appropriate schools—Common Entrance, Grade Nine Achievement Test, Technical Entrance exam, among others that over time morphed into the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), Primary Exit Profile (PEP), and so on.
The majority of the most prized schools are located in Kingston and St Andrew, but there are satellites dispersed across the entire country.
Even with today’s renaming of all schools at the secondary level to eradicate the dreaded stigma associated with those that were deemed inferior, the greatest percentage of pupils with the best passes in the Common Entrance, GSAT, PEP, are sent to the traditional and top-tier high schools.
The top graduates from the teacher’s colleges gravitate towards these same schools. These schools also have better equipment and resources, and usually have stronger alumni associations which provide additional resources. The end result? A significantly higher probability of multiple and higher passes in the secondary exit examinations, along with hopes of a brighter future, or consummation of an already existing high status position.
It is no secret, then, why parents go into paroxysms of grief if their children “pass” for the “wrong” schools. Woe is me! This cannot be! My precious child is not going to that school!
It is no small wonder that children also fall prey to depression at the horrifying thought that they have failed because they ended up at the “bad” or low-class school that will kill their parents’ hopes and dreams of their social mobility that is seemingly assured if their children attend the “right” high school.
Something is still wrong here. This is a never-ending story. Jamaica’s rigid class structures have grown organically with the forward movement of this society and continue to operate very deliberately in this paradise we call home.
Donna P Hope, PhD, is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies.
—Courtesy Jamaica Observer
Raffique Shah’s column returns next Sunday.