Election campaigns are notorious for a heightening of race talk in Trinidad and Tobago. This has been the reality since before Independence and, despite changing demographics, remains an element of the politics. The emergence of social media as a forum for individual expression has removed filters which once protected the society from extreme language including publicly racist language. In such a context, it is difficult to determine whether T&T is becoming more polarised on the basis of race, as some believe, or whether social media is magnifying and manipulating whatever pockets of polarisation exist.
This issue has acquired some currency with the recent Express poll conducted by Solution by Simulation which found the society divided along racial lines on key national issues, with those of “African descent” being more supportive of government policy than those of “Indian descent”.
On the opinion of citizens of mixed ethnicity, the poll stated that “it typically lies between that of the two major ethnic groups, although mixed persons tend to side more with Indos on distrust of the national institutions and rejection of government policy, with the exception of economic policies and the overall assessment of the government in which their views are more akin to persons of African descent.”
However, as polarising a scenario as the African/Indian figures suggest, another element of T&T’s political reality is the longing to escape race politics which goes all the way back to the Trinidad Labour Party of the 1930s, the Party of Political Progress Groups (POPPG) known as the business party, and the whole stream of non-ethnic parties which eventually coalesced into the political tsunami of the National Alliance for Reconstruction of 1986 which, for a few brief moments seemed to sweep aside the politics of race.
In many different ways and with varying degrees of success, the population has since continued to demonstrate an abiding interest in moving T&T’s politics beyond race. Today, even in the midst of anxiety about racial polarisation, there is a flourishing of political options not based on racial solidarity. There are parties pitching to workers, to the youth, to the environment, to better governance and so on. Each believes there is a constituency for what it has to offer.
Even the two political parties in Parliament that have historically drawn their support from the two main race groups would know that pitching to race is not enough to win an election in 21st century Trinidad and Tobago.
Between them is a substantial body of voters who have been willing to switch from one to the other, putting them into office and removing them almost at will. For these voters who have been determining the outcome of elections since 1986, race is not the primary factor. These are political facts that should be borne in mind whenever the volume of race talk is raised. Recognising the political pattern of public discourse during election seasons also helps to provide some perspective on an issue that has torn apart many other societies even as T&T manages to amble its way in negotiating the contentious issue of race.
Having said that, however, the precious yet delicate fabric of Trinidad and Tobago society should never be taken for granted. It is the responsibility of all, and especially of those aspiring to lead this country, to set their faces against division, whether of race, class, religion or creed. Trinidad and Tobago needs all its people to achieve its fullest potential.