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by Dr. Peter Laurie
Barbados is one of the most successful post-colonial societies. That’s because after independence we embarked on a continuous process of decolonisation.
Legally, we decided some years ago to have the Caribbean Court of Justice as our highest court of appeal instead of the British Privy Council. Culturally, we began to reappropriate our long-suppressed African heritage.
And now politically, we have taken the decision to have a Bajan as our head of state instead of whoever happens to be the head of state of the UK, our former colonial ruler.
Yet we still face two fundamental socio-economic decolonisation challenges. The first is to free us all from the idea of race/colour as an essential identity and a human and social divider.
The second is to free those languishing economically at the bottom of our society from the prejudices stemming from our colonial history and lift them up to be an integral part of a modern Barbados.
Let’s start by defining what we’re talking about.
Race/colour and decolonisation
First, the notion of dividing humans into races has been totally debunked by genetic science. While race is biologically meaningless, as a social construct it has had, and continues to have, devastating real-world consequences.
Let’s be clear: race is an invention of racism and has no meaning outside of that context.
When Europeans began enslaving and oppressing Africans, they chose the distinguishing feature of skin colour. Then colour became reinforced by ‘race’, with Europeans conveniently providing the pseudo-science to ‘prove’ that the African ‘race’ — a concept totally unknown to Africans — was inferior to the Caucasian ‘race’.
Africa was then vilified by the colonial powers as the uncivilised ‘dark continent’ and its people as less than human, deliberately covering up centuries of the flowering of African civilisations. This was used to legitimise the economic exploitation of the African continent.
Even as late as the 1960s, the distinguished British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper described African history as the study of ‘the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe’.
Under British colonialism, the Barbados Slave Code of 1661 was the earliest legal incarnation of racism in the Americas, describing ‘Negroes’ as ‘an heathenish brutish and an unsertaine dangerous kinde of people’ requiring ruthless discipline.
It’s not easy, after centuries of enslavement and oppression of Africans by the British in Barbados, and even after decades of independence and the removal of the legal and political underpinnings of racism, to throw off the mind-set of centuries of ingrained racial stereotyping.
To break free of the shackles of race, we would have to come to terms with our history of enslavement, rather than shamefacedly sweep that history under the carpet.
As I have argued in these pages before, a Barbadian museum dedicated to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and enslavement of Africans in Barbados and the Caribbean, if properly designed and executed, would have a powerful cathartic, educational and transformative impact on our society. And, yes, it would be a huge money-spinner.
The British, in enslaving, oppressing, and exploiting our ancestors, at the same time unavoidably left us such valuable legacies as language; systems of law, education and administration; democratic parliamentary government; and, yes, cricket!
These we appropriated for our own purposes. But it is Africa, through our enslaved ancestors, that taught us how to walk and talk, heal bodies and minds, make music, sing and dance, laugh and love, cook, eat and drink, and express our spirituality.
As a result of this history, Bajans, wherever our ancestors came from, and whatever the colour of our skin, share a common creolised cultural heritage.
We can never disentangle. Indeed, we should seek to become more entangled. An understanding of our history would also save us from the absurdity of mimicking the Americans by setting aside one month a year to celebrate Black History in a Black country.
There are those who feel we may never quite be able to break free of the ingrained Bajan habit of ethnic ‘social distancing’, though I have seen major cracks in the wall with generational change. So, will we ever get beyond the illusory identity of race and colour in Barbados?
Yes, but not in my lifetime.
Class and decolonisation
The second challenge of emancipating those at the bottom of the socio-economic structure of our society is both harder and easier. Harder, because many of us don’t even perceive there is a problem; but easier, because we have several practical solutions to hand.
One of the pervasive and pernicious effects of our colonial history was the lopsided ownership of wealth, including land, with the white planter-merchant oligarchy owning a disproportionate share. Moreover, that oligarchy actively discriminated against blacks in employment and entrepreneurship.
In the decades since Independence the situation has clearly changed. That oligarchy based on sugar has declined with that commodity, but has that inherited generational wealth simply shifted to new investments with similar attitudes?
There are also successful white entrepreneurs who have arisen, not from the oligarchy, but from an originally poor-white indentured background. Surely their success is based on hard work and innovation, but was white privilege a contributing factor? There is also the growth of businesses owned by other ethnic groups and foreigners.
In addition, the black middle class has clearly expanded significantly and black entrepreneurship has increased. Moreover, as the digital and creative economic sectors expand, the black middle class is in a better position educationally to take advantage of the new opportunities.
So, are there still barriers to black economic empowerment? Without reliable up-to-date data it’s hard to analyse the problem rationally and come up with workable solutions. The problem, though, is that when we talk of black empowerment, we tend to focus on the black middle class. Meanwhile, what about those persons, who, through no fault of their own, leave school without a fit-for-purpose education and few opportunities for gainful employment? They find themselves at the bottom of our society, voiceless, cynical, defeated, defiant.
This is partly due to a systemic discrimination against the lower classes stemming from our colonial history. Once slavery was abolished, the dominant white class needed to control and discipline the emancipated black population so as to produce a repressed and manageable source of labour for the plantation economy.
Control was exerted in a variety of ways, but one that was applied extensively was harsh penalties for minor offences such as vagrancy, loitering, begging, soliciting, abusive language, and so on. In other words, criminalising the poor and the socially excluded. Even with political and legal reform, this systemic bias still exists.
Here are some examples.
Some of the dress codes posted in government offices open to the public, seem directed at those at the lower end of our society. Prohibited items include: back-outs, belly-outs, curlers, flip flops, bare feet, bare backs, head ties, tank tops, exposed underwear, and “tight or revealing clothing.”
When last did you see a middle class woman — black, white, or red — walk into a government office in Bridgetown in a belly-out and curlers?
Have Rastafarians always got a fair break in our society?
Are our homeless treated with kindness?
How many former students of the top ten secondary schools reside in Her Majesty’s Hotel in St Philip?
Why do only 30 per cent of secondary school students leave school with the necessary qualifications to allow them to be successful?
How many middle class Bajans are hauled before the courts for possession of small quantities of marijuana?
Have street vendors always been treated fairly? Are they merely tolerated rather than treated as budding entrepreneurs?
The policies implemented just prior to and after Independence (education, housing, social welfare and so on) succeeded in raising up a lot of those at the bottom, creating a broad middle class. Now we need to go a step farther and remove the remnants of systemic bias against the low-income, poor and marginalised. This will require a range of policies that will creatively energise our entire society:
Educational reform to ensure that every graduate of the secondary schools, not just the top 30 per cent, acquires the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills to succeed in today’s knowledge economy as well as ‘life’ skills like how to grow wealth;
• The reform of our penal system;
• Ensuring every household has high-speed access to the internet and at least two connectivity devices;
• A universal basic income replacing the hodgepodge of welfare programmes, as an efficient and effective way to meet the social needs of the low-income;
• Far more widespread employee shareholding;
• Incentivising worker cooperatives and social enterprises that use profits for community-serving goals;
• Incentivising large companies to go public;
• More affordable tax-exempt savings plans;
A sovereign wealth fund to ensure that future generations of Barbadians have access to and benefit from the wealth created in this country.
If reparations from the colonial powers for enslavement and exploitation are to mean anything, most of the funding most be directed not only to eradicating racism, but also to removing poverty and marginalisation in our society, building community and preserving our environment.
In other words, transforming our societies.
Dr. Peter Laurie is a retired permanent secretary and head of the Foreign Service who once served as Barbados’ Ambassador to the United States.