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Dangers of ethnic head-counting

Sunday, January 6, 2013

With no pleasure, I disagree fundamentally with my colleague and partner columnist, Maxie Cuffie (We Will Fall, December 23; Maxie’s Response, December 29), as I did with former chairman of the Police Service Commission (PSC), Nizam Mohammed (Nizam Cries Race, March 25, 2011), and indeed all those who rationalise that counting ethnic heads is an effective and productive route towards equality in T&T.


There are many parts of the world where this approach is practical as a starting point towards ethnic equality, and even in those parts ethnic head-counting is not the final destination but an initial strategy to afford basic human rights to millions who have, and continue to be, systematically oppressed by another ethnic group. A characteristic of these locations is institutional discrimination against peoples of particular races.


Contemporary racism in the United States, for example, is built on a long history of racist philosophies of white superiority that were buttressed by a broad range of policies, laws and institutions that normalised racism and perpetuated it.


Institutional racism in the US has been responsible for African enslavement, Indian reservations, segregation, residential schools for Native Americans, and internment camps. As a result of institutional racism, wide disparities have occurred in employment, housing, education, healthcare, government and other sectors.



While many laws were passed in the mid-20th century to make discrimination illegal, major inequalities still exist and continue to affect that society; legal changes notwithstanding, it is a much more daunting to change worldviews based on racist sentiments.


Violent white-on-black racism in South Africa is an indelible part of the memories of generations in South Africa and the world. Institutional racism excluded millions of Black people from resources and power; one powerful example was South Africa’s 1913 Natives Land Act, which reserved 90 per cent of land for white use, and the Native Urban Areas Act, which regulated the movement of black males.


From 1948 onwards, white South African governments enforced legal segregation through the: Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949);  Immorality Amendment Act (1957); Population Registration Act (1950); Group Areas Act (1950); Suppression of Communism Act (1950); Bantu Building Workers Act (1951); Separate Representation of Voters Act (1951); Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act (1951); Bantu Authorities Act (1951); Natives Laws Amendment Act (1952); Natives (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act (1952); Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes) Act (1953); Bantu Education Act (1953); and Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (1953).



These are, of course, far from the only locations where racism and ethnic discrimination is so normative and consolidated that redressing it requires head-counting as a diagnostic tool and affirmative action as part of a corrective strategy. (And discrimination, of course, extends beyond race to many groups such as women, the disabled, people of a particular religion etc.



In these cases too, instructional discrimination over protracted periods of time forced the need to alleviate discrimination through head-counting, such as the number of women in parliaments etc).



This is not the case in T&T’s short history of Indian/African relations, and to suggest that those groups here, which exist in a lateral rather than hierarchical relationship, have systematically oppressed each other to the extent that it is necessary for the country to count Indianpeople and Blackpeople across sectors and then redress any numerical imbalances found is to: accept untruths about ourselves; reduce our unique reality to one that fits into primitive global trends; diminish the realities of peoples who actually suffer violent, systematic repression; make Stokely Carmichael (who coined the term “institutional racism”) roll over in his grave laughing at his homeland (note how the discussion raised by Maxie was reduced to a jokey disagreement over whether the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, Prof John LaGuerre, is really an Indian); and take us along a dangerous and unproductive path where Indians are encouraged to view Africans in positions of authority with suspicion and vice versa, while simultaneously fuelling a misguided perception that Indians cannot be treated fairly by Africans and Africans will be disadvantaged by Indians when Indians are in positions of power.


Ethnic head-counting also assumes that these appointed Indian and African heads are sufficiently group-conscious to ensure that their own is protected from unfair treatment and, further, that these heads are more conscious, better informed, and more knowledgeable about their own group than people outside their group; in T&T we share knowledge of each other’s histories and cultures to the extent that there are Africans who know more about Indianpeople than Indianpeople themselves, and vice versa. This, by the way, is a good thing and ought to be encouraged at the same time that self-knowledge is encouraged.


The head-count strategy is also blind to internalised racism—something that many find awkward to disclose and discuss—where some Blackpeople and Indianpeople do not hold members of their group in high regard.


Blind it is, too, to internal diversity within groups where class and religion, for example, also determine one’s view of members of one’s ethnic group as well as those outside the group. An Orisha or Hindu adherent sitting before a promotions panel in the police service is likely to both be discriminated against by African and Indian born-again Christians because both Hindu and Orisha followers are demon-worshippers in the born-again Christian worldview.


If the primary benefit of ethnic head-counting is superficial, that is, it gives the appearance that one would be fairly treated, then that is too minor a benefit to be derived from such a fundamental policy. Not to mention that it is backward to encourage a population to feel better, react more favourably, or feel more secure only when they see people who share their particular phenotype.


In our context, it is unsophisticated, dangerous and I daresay lazy to suggest head-counting to address instances of racial discrimination. The harder but more progressive solution is to ensure that systems exist to ensure equality for all citizens—whatever their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, colour, class etc—and that those systems are scrupulously managed and monitored by competent and fair people in a transparent manner.


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