Many heralded the 2008 election of Barack Hussein Obama as the inauguration of a ‘postrace’ world.
However, the subsequent 2016 election of Donald J. Trump and the racial animus that followed affirmed how wrong they were. 2020 featured the unleashing not only of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic but also the Black Lives Matters protests in response to a racial pandemic, particularly the unlawful killing of African Americans by law enforcement officers.
While considerable progress was made on a coronavirus vaccine, an effective treatment for the pandemic of racism remains long overdue. A course is also needed for Barbados as our history is built on racism. Indeed, the prosperity of the island is rooted in the blood of enslaved Africans.
Shortly after Barbados was settled, the integrated sugar plantation model was developed on the island and subsequently exported across the Commonwealth including to the USA. In the mid-seventeenth century, Barbados was like Silicon Valley in the production of wealth.
‘White gold’ as sugar was known, was the most important global commodity and Barbados was England’s most valuable colony.
Given the strength of the Barbados economy historically, Bridgetown at that time was the largest English-speaking city outside of Britain, more prosperous than even Boston. However, sugar was also the darkest period for the majority of inhabitants; for sugar and slavery were Barbados’ pride and shame as the island prospered from that most heinous crime against humanity.
Thankfully, due to the opportunities for upward mobility made possible through visionary political leadership and specifically access to free universal education, our island paradise became one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. With ability and determination, anyone can become someone.
Notwithstanding the considerable political, social, and economic progress made in the last 75 years, the residue of the historical interface between race and class lingers. This is reflected in the continued command of the economy by and a general social segregation of our white minority. Recently as a nation, we have had to contend with a number of instances where race as an issue intersected with our development.
Barbados along with other members of CARICOM seeks reparations from European governments for slavery. The claim is predicated on the following factors, that they: (i) wilfully initiated the enslavement of Africans and practice of genocide; (ii) refused compensation to the enslaved on the advent of emancipation; and (iii) imposed for another 100 years, policies designed to perpetuate suffering upon the emancipated.
In 2018, the Barbados Government was heavily involved in the resolution of the Windrush scandal in the United Kingdom.
As a consequence of Theresa May’s illconceived, xenophobic immigration policy, many elderly, Barbadian and West Indianborn, long-time UK residents who helped build a modern, multicultural Britain were treated as illegal immigrants.
The scandal underscored a perpetuation of institutional racism in Britain.
In July 2020, on the UK ITV’s Good Morning Britain television programme, Prime Minister Mia Mottley, noting the continued problem of “mental slavery” renewed calls for reparations by Britain for the holocaust of slavery.
In November 2020, influenced by the global Black Lives Matters movement, the Government removed the 1813 statue of Lord Nelson, the high protector of colonialism and slavery, from Bridgetown.
Two months earlier the Government announced plans to replace Queen Elizabeth as its head of state and move on from its colonial past.
Race also featured in the recent COVID-19 spike in Barbados. The local Barbadian community was singled out as the cause of the spread when prima facie evidence suggested that tourists were largely the cause. It was noteworthy that COVID-19- positive white tourists who knowingly broke quarantine, received fines whereas black locals were jailed simply for breaking curfew.
Lest we forget, how a white corporate leader on suspicion of drug trafficking was able to stroll into the court unfettered while a black corporate leader was given a ‘walk of shame’ and taken to court handcuffed and under police escort.
Significant to Barbados’ membership in the Commonwealth, Prince William, second in line to the British throne and the headship of the Commonwealth, had to defend the Royal Family following the explosive Oprah Winfrey interview with Harry and Meghan. His assertion “we are very much not a racist family,” exposed the bruising the monarchy suffered following the allegations of racism made against the immediate members of the Royal Family.
The point being made here is that race still matters and impacts on our lives and development in possibly subtle yet profound ways. Racism is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible. The future of The University of the West Indies, a central agency for the growth, development and transformation of the region has recently been pulled in to this racial mire.
The substantive points of the Report of The Chancellor ’s Commission on the Governance of The University of the West Indies, which has been damning of The UWI’s governance and financial situation, have been lost in the peripheral contestation seemingly between the black Vice Chancellor and his boss, the white Trinidadian Chancellor.
Similarly, the appointment of the next Cave Hill Campus principal has become embroiled by those trying, as we approach becoming a republic, to justify the appointment of an Englishman over two hometown boys. As the Hon. George Lamming wrote in the Castle of My Skin:
“The colonial experience of my generation was almost wholly without violence. It was a terror of the mind; a daily exercise in self-mutilation. Black versus black in a battle for self-improvement.”
There is a need for those involved in and able to meaningfully contribute to a debate on the future of The UWI to help the public at large, the taxpayers who finance the institution, to understand the governance and financing challenges at The UWI.
Equally important is for us to appreciate the competencies that the senior executives should possess in order to ensure The UWI remains viable and able to realise its role as a principal agency for change in the Caribbean.
The region, particularly the current and future generation of students and leaders, deserves better.