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The next generation of racial politics

Sunday, January 20, 2013

That Indian/African racism and racialism predate Hilton Sandy, that racial baiting has been ubiquitous in T&T politics, and that it is practised by PNM and UNC are by now undeniable truths. So to swelter inside that cocoa house with repetitive back-and-forth accusations of who said what, when, and who responded then but not now and vice versa is unproductive, unhealthy and, quite frankly, unbright.


Politicians are easy targets; it’s easy to say they are the ones mobilising racial responses and inflaming Indian/African tensions. Of course, they are blameworthy, doing and saying too much for too long that aggravates tensions and consolidates stereotypes (observe how, while stereotyping the other group, they also often reinforce stereotypes of the group on whose behalf they claim to be acting/speaking).


Politicians use race because race has political purchase; race works in getting votes. Although there are those among the leadership and membership of PNM and UNC who hold racist worldviews, I submit that those views would be much more effectively contained if parties seriously risk losing elections because of them. In fact, the reverse is true; parties win votes among their own groups by galvanising us against them.


So it seems the unavoidable and challenging conversation is why do voters remain available for manipulation by transparently racialised and at times racist manoeuvres?



All of T&T’s people cannot be brain-dead and unthinking; not all citizens are easily duped for a CEPEP wuk; and I feel certain that the majority of us really like each other and get along just fine to the extent that if one were to remove everything Indian from Trinidad, Africans would suffer and if one were to remove everything African from Trinidad, Indians would be a much lesser people.


Herein lies one observation: in the context of Indian/African relations in T&T, there is often a disconnect between how people relate as individuals and how they relate as groups.



So when Sandy says he has Indian friends, when Sugar Aloes some years ago said he’s not racist because his manager is Indian and when Sat Maharaj said he likes black people, they are being sincere; they and others do have friends, managers, lovers, co-workers of the other ethnicity, and they do get along just fine (remember Sat and Selwyn Cudjoe publicly declared their friendship).


But listen to those same people speak about their group identity in relation to the other group and you hear such rabid statements—some coded, some blatant—as to make you cringe. Among the radio callers, letter-writers and bloggers (some get paid, some volunteer) who spew vile commentaries, most probably enjoy solid relationships and have positive experiences with members of the other ethnic group.


This is part of the reality of ethnic relations in T&T and these are the areas of complexity that we have to explore.


Rather than continuously targeting politicians who play the race card or awaken the race bogey (and yes, we even have clichés to describe their appeals, so familiar are they to us) we have to also see ourselves with equal clarity. Why do we react? Why do we respond? Why do we avail ourselves for tribal manipulation? Do we want to take the curry out of the crab and Kendell out of the kathak?


The population has signalled its desire to detach from the UNC-PNM, Indian-African politics. We voted 33-3 in favour of the NAR in 1986 and we voted 29-12, not for the UNC but for a partnership government that was making the right sounds during the 2010 election campaign.



In 2001, the 18-18 deadlock was a signal that racial voting had reached its natural cul-de-sac. (I remain flabbergasted that Patrick Manning thought, first, that this was a problem and, second, that the solution was to change the number of electoral constituencies to an odd number). And the breakdown of the population by ethnicity demonstrates that no party can win a general election by appealing to its tribe alone.


The failure of the NAR was devastating; 26 years later the PP has also failed; the COP, once a viable enough option that attracted 148,000 voters in 2007, is now a party in name only, having absorbed the taint of its stubborn association with the UNC-dominated PP. It is for this reason that the PNM should have sacrificed Sandy and the Belle Garden East/Roxborough/Delaford seat in the THA elections.


At a time when people are searching for alternatives and seeing none, Keith Rowley missed a brilliant opportunity to point his party in a direction that would make it attractive to more than its core supporters, who by themselves cannot win a general election.



Had he sacrificed Sandy and one THA seat, he would have at once demonstrated to his party’s senior members that the PNM’s modus operandi had changed or was in the process of changing, indicated to PNM’s core supporters that a new man with a new vision was in the big chair, challenged the PP to act decisively each time racialised messages drop from their orifices, given Indians a reason to consider voting for him, invested truth in the PNM’s “generation next” Tobago campaign slogan, pointed a direction forward for the country, and written himself into our history. In the end, the task was too great for him and the PNM.


I guess in the Tobago bush, as in the Trinidad bush, a bird in the hand is worth two.


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