“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.” – (Charles Dickens – ‘Great Expectations’)
Recent events in Barbados have challenged social and political commentators to keep a balanced keel. There are perilous appearances, uncertain circumstances, and grotesque infiltrations penetrating Barbados’ social spaces. The famous writer Agatha Christie long determined that “the impossible could not have happened therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.” It therefore takes sobriety to unmask ‘appearances’ and explain aspects of the phenomena happening in Barbados. By implication, Barbadians must be mindful of exposing discrimination and prejudice wherever these are prevalent while correcting Barbados’ social order of things.
The terms discrimination and prejudice convey negative connotations that usually lead to some form of injustice. Discrimination may be defined as ‘a selectively unjustified negative behaviour toward members of the target group that involves denying individuals or groups of people equality of treatment’ (Henkel et al., 2006: 101). The same authors define prejudice to be ‘an unfair negative attitude toward a social group or a person perceived to be a member of that group’ (Ibid.). Either way, both discrimination and prejudice are damning on a society. Inevitably, the state and its agencies should also come under the microscope. How does the state relate to conflict emerging from different social groups and class interests? One contention is through proper, impartial use of its institutions. Surely, institutions are developed over time and are the ‘products of interaction and adaptation’.
In our social world, institutions are contextualised through formal rules, procedures or norms, symbol systems, cognitive scripts, and moral templates that provide the ‘frames of meaning’ guiding human action. Everyone ought to be equal under the law, but incidents have happened in Barbados that render this supposition false. Quite recently, Barbados’ LGBT community marched to celebrate ‘gay pride’ and to garner support for those on the receiving end of ‘bigotry and venom’ which are displayed by ultra-conservative factions in the local society. Mischievous church leaders, known to scream homophobic contempt against the LGBT community, became an evangelising brigade claiming that international “agencies are attaching aid and economic support and technical assistance to the LGBT agenda” as an attempt to re-colonise Barbados.
Wielding their religious swords against the LGBT community, the evangelising brigade in accusatory tones contended that the LGBT community was actively trying to impose ‘sexual preference’ and ‘homosexuality lifestyles’ on most of Barbados’ population. The evangelising brigade additionally suggested that the local LGBT agenda is desirous of finding ways ‘to deconstruct marriage and to reconstruct it to legitimise same-sex partnerships’ in Barbados. The suggestion is a hypocritical absurdity; no appeal has been made nor has such a proposal ever been declared a policy position by any Barbados government. Barbadians appear more concerned with lifting the economy and attracting investments that will promote economic growth and provide jobs.
In a blurring of lines between the protective state and the moralising church, it is fair to ask: why should individuals and groups with differing identity characteristics be denied the right of non-discriminatory treatment by another group claiming to enjoy that very right? Non-discrimination is a human right protected under Barbados’ Constitution and under the United Nations Charter of Human Rights to which Barbados is a signatory. Individuals who remain silent eventually give tacit approval without realizing that silence may well be rooted in cowardice or even dishonesty. Despite the moral perfectionists and religious zealots, numerous Barbadians are discussing issues pertinent to their well-being.
Meanwhile, issues of race and ethnicity, and morality and tolerance have resurfaced. After reports of a drug find by the Royal Barbados Police Force (RBPF) on a vessel owned by a major local firm and that at least two prominent directors of the company were on board, the serious implications of race and ethnicity waded across Barbados with caustic energy and speculation. Insinuations and mostly uninformed assumptions were augmented by the clamour of ‘whiteness’ in contrast to the ‘poor black man’. This relic of colonialism and trigger for social conflict floated overtly and covertly, thereby exposing the double complex of dominance and inferiority in the nation’s psyche. Barbadians emitted perceptions of discrimination, prejudice, and injustice while complaining of patterns of practice happening from the lofty positions of officialdom and authority.
Barbados is to be reminded that some social groups are more likely to be prejudicially affected and discriminated against than others. For instance, on the treatment of vendors and the disparity that exists within the public transportation system, persons argued that the terms of engagement are ultimately unfavourable to the ‘small black man’ trying to earn a living. It is argued that class prejudices are discriminatingly reinforced by state-actions. Whether by racial slurs, ethnic separation, or inflections taken against the monied class, several views fuel claims that there are at least two societies in Barbados comprising the Medes and the Persians – the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Indeed, sociologists argue that ethnicity “results from inter-ethnic relations, whenever two different groups or societies come into contact and establish various modes of spatial, political, economic, cultural and social relations”. The occasional outbursts from affected Barbadians serve to highlight forms of institutional discrimination.
Surely, institutional discrimination is often perpetuated and maintained through the consolidation of practices rooted in culture, myth, and/or tradition. The occurrences of last week coughed up several dismayed Barbadians although few may have been caught by surprise. Deep-seated fears that have never been adequately settled were once again revealed. Many felt that considering the scope of power relations, preferential treatment would be extended to a couple of ‘big-ups’. The sheer visibility of ethnic/racial differentiation and dominance also revealed the inferiority complex of many. Even those by-passing skin-tone, focused on titular appearances; they further insinuated that status and wealth favoured the entrapped couple above the poor black man. Sadly, an eager majority appeared ready for public prosecution and conviction.
Soberly, a few balanced opinions were less judgmental. These minority voices sought to open the space for understanding. They demanded appropriate action rather than commit to final positions. These Barbadians were clearly hopeful that the legal system with its processes and arrangements would result in justice rather than conspiracy. Of course, a rush to judgement would in no way help to untangle the historical webs of inequality, nor would it allay the concerns of those steeped in prolonged hypocrisy. Even the usually low or sometimes hushed voices, called for the clear hollowing out of a space for novel forms of equal treatment under the law. There was caution summoning the ‘Quick Draw McGraws’ not to dismiss the professionalism of the RBPF or Barbados’ judicial system. However, the lamentation implying that Peter must pay for Paul still rings loud in the public sphere.
Clearly, the people’s hope for justice is a good call; but the quest for justice ought not to disregard facts and fairness. Noted political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau advised: “Do not judge and you will never be mistaken.” Accused persons, regardless of the hue of their skins or the colouration of their money, must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. There are set criteria for the granting of bail; what may fit and apply for one individual may differ for another, particularly if the ‘other’ has antecedents and is known to the police and the courts. Although “you can’t get rid of injustice by being quiet about it,” Barbadians must be civic-minded and remain guided by the rule of law. There is only ‘one’ Barbados.
(Dr George C. Brathwaite is a part-time lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, and a political consultant. Email: [email protected]).