As advanced as we are in modern Barbados, class and classism are still significant factors in our society. We need to make space to discuss the ways that classism lives on all levels from the systemic to the individual, and to develop effective mechanisms to address unequal access to resources.
Class is an ancient classification system used to order society. In the West, our class categories were initially established by Servius Tullius when he divided the Roman people into six classes for the purpose of taxation, and came to us through the British colonial overlords. Classism is a discriminatory attitude based on the distinctions derived from social or economic classes. Perhaps the most elusive, yet pernicious, of all the socio-economic and political challenges confronting our country today is the issue of class and its effect on relations and relationships.
To understand the influence of classism in Barbados, it is necessary to have an appreciation of the historical forces and social and material conditions that informed our thinking. The British transplanted their social structure, which was basically a caste system, in the colonies. Barbados is a plantation society and economy, where black people were the lowest class, and in bondage; other minorities didn’t fare much better as they were indentured servants. Among them were some few whites known as ‘poor whites’ or ‘red legs’. They fitted somewhere slightly above the slaves; with the rich plantation owners at the top.
After the abolition of slavery, Barbadian society struggled to accommodate former slaves as they looked for their place as free men. Although Barbados was run by its own parliament since 1639, there was a limited franchise that restricted participation in political life almost exclusively to rich, white, male landowners. As the dominant group, the planter class got to define what was normal and acceptable for society, to shape laws, and to decide how state resources were distributed. Thus, the agenda of the ruling class played a critical role in defining the social and political character of Barbados. Poor whites, women, and most black people were effectively alienated from political power. This rigid hierarchy did not allow for any great measure of social mobility which led to the lower classes traditionally finding their identity in interpersonal relationships and community connections.
As class shapes the thinking of an individual in a tangible way, and often-times people only know their place in society through their class identification, it is a matter of some concern when we observe increasing numbers of Barbadians feeling alienated from their communities. Not only that, but there is a pervasive myth that this situation is inevitable and unalterable. It therefore is not just institutions that are the problem, it is also beliefs about the way society is ordered.
Politicians are uniquely positioned to address this issue. Politicians have the power to influence how our society functions, to not just participate and maintain the status quo, but to create a more just economy; to confront the institutional forces that splinter our country. Words are not enough; they may have worked in the past to influence people to be supportive of politicians, but the people of current generations have learnt from experience that actions are more important than mere sweet talk. Barbadians are demanding that we look past optics and address the root causes of classism and economic oppression.
All classes suffer in a society that is characterized by injustice. The life chances of the working class are affected directly by having less access to jobs, business loans and education opportunities. The classes who are favoured are also impacted. They deny themselves fresh blood enriching their ranks who may bring new ideas. Society degenerates as more people feel discouraged.
The United Progressive Party is committed to having a government that is inclusive, and policy that is attuned to the concern of all classes of Barbadians. Part of that solution is frankly discussing our identities, experiences, and differences in the spirit of building our country. Class is not a separate issue; to end economic oppression, we must examine all perspectives and harness the energies of all classes toward a common goal. We will prioritize solutions that are generated by the people by providing platforms through which persons from all backgrounds can inform governmental decision making. This will be done by creating new fora as well as redesigning existing structures to promote inclusiveness and participatory decision making.
The UPP will respect the traditional role of community organizations and encourage people to once again see themselves as integral parts of their communities. In its short history, the UPP has adopted a process of engagement with communities in shaping policies. Our vision for change is founded upon progressive philosophy. We believe that there are certain things — like health care, education, a clean environment and the ability to work with dignity – which every Barbadian should be guaranteed by their government. This is indirect opposition to the current infrastructure that is predicated upon depriving some people of basic securities for the profit and benefit of a few.