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While I Am Here!

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 25, 2019

"Until all races see each other as brothers and sisters and not as competitors or enemies Trinidad and Tobago is not going to move forward."

—Kamla Persad-Bissessar

I congratulate the Hon. Kamla Persad-Bissessar for the brave speech on race relations in Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) that she delivered on Monday, February 11. While I do not agree totally with the accuracy of her "short history lesson," thinking in and of the future is much more important than being mired in the commess of the present. Demeaning Persad-Bissessar's important insights by castigating the probity of her having Malone Hughes, a brother who was charged and fined several times, on her platform does a disservice to a brilliant analysis of our present condition. It reduces a pressing existentialist issue to a misguided rant about non-sense.

In her very perceptive–not necessarily perfect–speech, Persad-Bissessar addressed the racial categorizing which she insists has held us back as a society for over 200 years. She did not blame one group for the excesses (her target seemed to be "the elites") but alerted us that it does not matter who is right or wrong-the Africans or the Indians–we have to take a conscious, forward–looking stance on the race issue. It matters enormously for our future development.

Persad-Bissessar called upon each group to recognize that they are products of a particular history, which still impacts our present condition. We need to understand that history if we are not to mindlessly categorize and defame each other.

She argues: "The Indo-Trinidadians must acknowledge that the Afro-Trinidadians were wronged by these acts [of discriminations by those in power] and while it was also difficult for many Indo-Trinidadians to also obtain land and ownership now it is a more difficult task for others [to do so] because of historical discrimination."

This bold theoretical move acknowledges that each group has been wronged by past economic arrangements and that living peacefully together demands that we acknowledge and understand the pain members of each group have gone though. Even the elites cannot participate meaningfully in our society's development if they do not understand the perils that these two disadvantaged groups have undergone.

This is why Persad-Bissessar insists: "The only way for us to reduce the crime rate and build our economy is to have a society where wealth, prosperity and property ownership is distributed to all the population and not just a selected few." Such a formulation comes close to the socialist principle: "From each according to his ability, to each according his work" (my emphasis).

Persad-Bissessar is aware that a fair distribution of a society's wealth is a necessary condition for social justice, especially when we celebrated "World Day of Social Justice" on Wednesday. This is why I was disturbed when she embraced Juan Guaido's regime that is participating in a diplomatic coup d'tat in Venezuela at the behest of Donald Trump, the most racial and reactionary president the United States has ever seen, and who has warned the Venezuelan military: "Abandon Nicolas Maduro or lose everything."

I do not accept Persad-Bissessar's position that PNM "is the most oppressive government of the poor in the history of this country," or that it has pushed racism "to divide our population" and "to serve its own selfish interests." Many well-meaning citizens have made similar charges against the UNC. Each party has used racism, subtle and otherwise, to push their respective agendas.

I am pleased that Persad-Bissessar opened up the "race bogey" by publicly encouraging Afro-Trinbagonians to join her party. She says: "You must step forward and increase the African voice in the United National Congress by joining in the decision-making process. Don't let others make decisions for you and chart your future. Step up and take leadership roles in the party while I am here."

Last year I penned eight articles, "Preparing the Way for Kamla," in which I argued that projecting from the present census data, the Indian population is likely to grow to about 41 percent by 2030 whereas the African population will remain static at about 36 percent. The way we are killing off the most vibrant members of our group we are likely to be a percentage point lower, even though my friends in statistics tell me it is difficult to make such a prediction.

It is important to take Persad-Bissessar at her word. She can sit around for the next seven years, confidently expecting, that on a basis of racial voting UNC will be in power for the foreseeable future. In this sense, her phrase "while I am here" is of crucial importance. We should not be skeptical of her evaluation.

To be sure that we got her message, she emphasized: "I am moving this party forward no matter who may kick and scream to maintain [their] relevance."

The old people used to say, "Don't take a flambeau to look for something at night that you can see in the day."

One does not have to believe everything Persad-Bissessar said but it makes sense to deconstruct the message behind her articulation.

It also behooves the PNM to listen to the voices of the marginalized who, in the voice of Hughes, pleads: "All I wanted is to develop my community, push the youth, get work for them, get a lil park, and we can show them what we capable of doing" (Express, February 20)

The commonsense response should be: "Listen," "learn," and "hear" what the brother and Kamla are saying.

Professor Cudjoe's email address is scudjoe@wellesley.edu. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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