This time last week (Tuesday 11th August), our country was in the midst of coming to terms with the election results. The tensions that had been inflamed during the campaign season, incited by both parties, continued to simmer amongst their respective supporters. In the days that followed, racial sentiments were expressed on social media by some Trinbagonian citizens—those of both African and Indian descent—and led to heated exchanges laced with insults and obscenities.
On the same day in the United States, presumptive Democratic Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, after weeks of searching and suspense, finally announced his running mate for the November election. He chose Senator Kamala Harris to be the party’s vice-presidential nominee. While she isn’t the first woman to hold the position, she is the first woman of colour –the daughter of an Afro-Jamaican father and an East Indian mother, both of whom were immigrants.
It’s interesting to compare and contrast the demographics and the histories of these two countries as it pertains to race and race relations. Today, they both have diverse populations comprising many ethnicities, nationalities, and religions. But they also have histories of enslaving coloured peoples, Africans in particular, resulting in legacies of prejudice towards their descendants.
To its credit, America has periodically undergone radical changes to become a more inclusive society. From women’s suffrage in 1920, to the civil rights act in 1964, to legalising same-sex unions in 2015. But these achievements were always preceded by organised and prolonged civic actions to pressure the country to confront and rectify social injustices. It wasn’t always easy, but the progress is evident—half a century after the end of segregation, in 2008, America elected its first black president. And, in 2016, it came close to electing its first female president. Even now, the recent momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement is creating discourse and redress of policing methods against minority communities. America does have its faults, but it has also proven itself to be capable of change. Can we say the same regarding our own country?
As much as we’d like to exult Trinidad and Tobago as a melting pot with its people living in harmony, displays like what we saw last week—the posts on social media—seem to indicate otherwise. Of course, optimistic citizens will downplay the extent of the animus, suggesting that it doesn’t reflect the majority of the country. Furthermore, that it’s merely a repercussion of the recent election and that it’s up to our political leaders to pacify the nation since it was they who used racial dog-whistles to rile up their supporters in the first place. But that would be an oversimplification of an issue that is deep-rooted in our past, with a complexity fashioned by the experiences of colonial-era slavery and indentureship that have led to generations of mutual mistrust between its two largest ethnic groups.
Now, I’m not suggesting that racism is an endemic problem for T&T. But it exists. Worse yet, we’ve allowed it to persist with a benign indifference i.e. “it’s just the way it’s always been” or “you can’t change people’s minds” or “it doesn’t affect me”. Again, optimistic citizens might point out that, like America, we too had our moment of social upheaval, pointing specifically to the Black Power Movement of 1970. But the days of marching side-by-side to demand better employment opportunities are long over. In the half-century that followed, we’ve done nothing to improve our country’s race relations. And as the socio-economic disparities continued to widen, coupled with the rise in crime and the use of divisive political rhetoric, the result is what we’re now witnessing— Afro and Indo-Trinidadians locked in a sordid, pointless, absurd contest to prove who’s more racist.
The comments on social media are bad enough, but our outrage—which, ironically, is also being facilitated by social media—is often misplaced and disproportional. Two years ago there were calls to boycott businesses owned by the “one per cent”. Two months ago the fury was aimed at the owners of a tea house and a pharmacy chain. Then, last week, the axe of public opinion felled a family-owned dairy producer. Finally! The people had been heard! Do we feel better about that? Has our lust for this brand of “social justice” been satiated? While the mob applauds and awaits the next bandwagon to jump on, nothing else has or will change. Individuals with business interests will just keep their questionable opinions (along with those of their families’ and their employees’) to themselves.
Considering America’s recent social and political polarisation, perhaps the focus on Kamala Harris will result in a much-needed discussion on the contribution of immigrants and the concerns of racially mixed families. Meanwhile, Trinidad and Tobago has no such desire for constructive introspection. And why should there be? It benefits certain persons and entities to push the narrative that we a bifurcated society – that we are all victims and enemies to one another. America strives to have a “more perfect union”, while we are debating whether “every creed and race finds an equal place”. That’s why their country is on the cusp of possibly electing its first bi-racial female vice-president, while we are still caught up in a race to the bottom.