Race in Trinidad and Tobago
The PNM’s triumph in a divided nation
Another election has passed and the question of race has reared its head. As a Trinbagonian citizen I hesitate to say its “ugly” head because as a nation we find strength in the national myth that every creed and race finds an equal place – an idealism we trumpet ad nauseam – and rightfully so, for our nation can only eke out a survival in this large world by holding together the kaleidoscope of races which make up Trinidad and Tobago.
The PNM has won the 2020 General election. The results are final. To conflate the desperation of Kamla Persad-Bissessar in asking for a recount in what is essentially the beginning of a fight for her political survival as an undermining of democracy, or the stubbornness of a racist few to never accept a ‘blank’ man as the nation’s leader, is to add fuel to a fire which has simmered within the bosom of our nation even pre-independence. These issues are separate and apart.
The Election Recount
Requesting a recount in a general election is in no way antagonistic to democracy. Elections have been brought into question even in the most ‘pristine’ democracies. The Elections and Boundaries Commission in Trinidad and Tobago is not immune to human error. Kamla Persad-Bissessar is well within her right to request a recount from the relevant authorities - which is the EBC – and only concede when this is done. Her demanding a recount is less a question of whether she seeks to undermine our democracy and more an issue of her obvious weakness now as political leader of the UNC. These issues ought not to be conflated. Persad-Bissessar knows her leadership will soon be challenged and must therefore build as strong an argument as possible in support of her continued leadership of the party. Demanding a recount is part of this strategy. An eagerness on the part of some well-intentioned observers to attack Persad-Bissessar as one attempting to undermine our democracy scrapes at the deeper sanctity of our democracy. These barbs ought to be saved for more serious and illegal attempts to disturb our democratic peace i.e. violence, voter intimidation, voter fraud – issues which we are not immune to as a nation and have had some experience with.
The question of Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s political future as leader of the UNC is what deserves the center stage going forward. Throughout her campaign she has sought to appeal to narrow sectional interests within our nation. This strategy has failed. On the other hand however, she did nab 19 of the 41 seats which were up for grabs in the General Election. This shows the overall disenchantment not only with the PNM but also with the attractiveness or lack thereof of the PNM’s leader – Dr. Keith Rowley. However, regardless of the PNM's insufficiencies, the United National Congress must speak to a broader voter base. They must reject the stale racism of a loud but minuscule part of the party. Persad-Bissessar’s greatest flaw – regardless of her high levels of likability nation-wide – was that she lacked the bravery to reject those racist elements within her party. Instead she pandered. As light-hearted as some of it did appear her racist jokes and racist innuendos were clear. As of today, her supporters cannot point to one instance in which she has spoken to the higher ideals of our nation with the same fluidity as she has sought to arouse the gutter race-politics the majority of the nation desires to leave behind.
"The question of Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s political future as leader of the UNC is what deserves the center stage going forward"
The Nation’s fight to grapple with the counter-intuitive
Historically the assumption has always been that blacks are the primary victims of structural racism. This has been perpetuated to the present day. This narrative, so clearly visible in the American context has been transplanted to many parts of the world, particularly in the neighboring Caribbean community. For the most part it is legitimate. Slavery is a historical fact. Racism is real. In the Trinbagonian context however, the race dynamic bequeathed to us by colonialism has less been about a white power structure – apart from the Syrian-Lebanese minority (which is by no means insignificant) – but a tussle between descendants of Africans and descendants of Indians, pitted against each other by the colonizer in the conventional template seen time and time again of divide and conquer.
The international struggle of the 'black man' was very much salient in the work of Dr. Williams, the nation’s first prime minister. In his own words, Williams considered the PNM to be the ‘undisputed intellectual leaders of the colonial nationalist movement in this part of the world’ (Williams, 1962). Primarily, this has been interpreted through the lens of the black struggle. This narrative is unquestionably easier to digest for the Caribbean islands with majority black populations. But for a nation as uniquely racially partitioned as ours (duly noting the similar composition of Guyana), leaving the East Indian, and particularly Hindu voice out of the equation - something that many have argued Williams did - has led to an almost eternal gripe by some against Dr. Williams and the institutions which he was so integral in framing. As a matter of historical fact, from 1956-1986 Trinidad and Tobago swore in no Hindu Ministers to serve in any Cabinet, a brazen and obvious neglect of an integral part of our population which few Trinbagonians ever recognize or even know about. The first time Hindus were ever to be sworn in as Ministers of Cabinet in the service of our nation – 1986 – there was to be found no Bhagavad Gita in all of President's House for their swearing in.
These slights, and a sense of alienation, which some argue has infiltrated public policy since our independence is at the core of the disgruntlement so poorly expressed in racist comments by some – not to mention their poorly channeled emotion.
"As a nation, contrary to popular belief, we are appallingly ignorant of our own history and deeply entrenched in uninformed opinions. However, a just and more equitable society is within our reach. We must be optimistic."
The PNM has won
The PNM has won the election, but they rule over a divided nation. The electoral map cannot show a starker reality of a nation racially divided, and geographically divided on the basis of race than the map of 2020. There are young and bright leaders capable of uniting our nation within the United National Congress, and some formerly of the United National Congress. It is a party with the capacity to stretch across the gulf of racial politics in the tradition of Basdeo Panday, but it must be open to calling back all hands on deck. If there is one thing that Kamla Persad-Bissessar did get right is that the United National Congress is capable of going it alone, however it must seek new leadership.
As a nation, contrary to popular belief, we are appallingly ignorant of our own history and deeply entrenched in uninformed opinions. However, a just and more equitable society is within our reach. We must be optimistic. Our journey starts with understanding each other. This demands empathy. The ability to place oneself in another’s shoes, right the wrongs of our past, and collectively move forward into a challenging but potentially fruitful future is now the portion of our youth.