The hijacking of race

The Royal Gazette
Opinion (14 March, 2007)

"The hijacking of race": An open discussion cannot happen in the run-up to an election

As the likely summer election creeps closer by the day, the best indicator of the soft launch of election season will be the increasingly frequent insertion of race into every issue, no matter how tortured the connection.

And it’s begun, with the budget’s racial scapegoating of employers, the announcement of a Government sponsored forum on race, and racial comments creeping into even the dump saga courtesy of Senator David Burch.

The premise on which this election tactic is predicated is that Bermuda’s overdue for an ‘honest discussion on race’ according to the Premier.

This statement unintentionally raises a very serious question which must be addressed before this discussion can begin: Is an honest discussion on race possible in the political arena?

I don’t ask that question to attack all politicians, but the examples of dishonest political discussions on race are everywhere; the most obvious recent example being Dr. Ewart Brown’s ‘racist dog’ attack on Dr. Grant Gibbons in Parliament, a speech which was founded on a lie (that Dr. Gibbons has attacked Dr. Brown’s wife) and whose racial punch line (tying the term ‘political eunuch’ to slavery) is tenuous at best.

If that shameful display was supposed to lay the groundwork for an ‘honest’ discussion on race we’re in trouble. To be honest, the run up to an election is the worst time to discuss any issue in depth, but in particular one like race.

Politics, particularly election time politics, is a zero sum game; you either win or you lose — there’s no prize for second place. This reality makes the political arena incompatible with an ‘honest’ discussion about race; that conversation requires a starting point of not trying to ‘win’ something but to exchange experiences and perspectives in an effort to foster empathy, understanding and hopefully reconciliation.

Do empathy, understanding and reconciliation sound compatible with a political campaign to you? One of the tragedies of Bermudian political life is that the issues which should be the focus of our attention (education, crime, housing, healthcare etc.) seem to generate little enthusiasm, whereas if we were able to harness the energy created by the mere mention of race we could put BELCO out of business.

Discussions of race in Bermuda are uninteresting, predictable and futile for one simple reason: race is no longer an issue; it’s been hijacked as a political device.

In that context we’ll never reach a greater understanding between the races, or the implementation of policies to address the resulting historic inequities of racial segregation. Those of us who believe that politicians can lead us to the racial Promised Land are hopeless optimists, naive or a politician. It’s time we took back this issue from the politicians, not hand it over to them so they can run us through the ringer one more time.

Like most of us, I’ve read and exchanged hundreds of thousands of words on race in Bermuda. We’ve undoubtedly made progress, but today we appear to be at a fork in the road where this progress can quickly unravel if we continue to permit race to be wielded as a political weapon to polarise the community; divide and conquer is a proven method to win votes.

We all know the jibes: the UBP is the white party, the PLP is the black party, so-and-so is too white, so-and-so is not black enough, sell-outs, shysters, black buffoons, Uncle Toms, or the latest being “a black man with a white man’s heart”. I could go on but I won’t.

And who are the authors of each and every one of those examples? Politicians. That alone is proof that politics isn’t the platform for this discussion. Ultimately, even the best intentioned politicians have a very simple goal: to get elected. In that context they often believe that the ends justify the means while others are just utterly convinced that they’re in the right.

One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate is that there are basically two types of politicians when it comes to race: those who appreciate that political jousting is ill-advised and approach the topic reluctantly and with reverence, versus those who delight in talking about it at any opportunity because they know they’ve got it totally figured out and effectively shut down discussion.

The latter tend to rarely offer any depth or insight on the issue, just cheap shots, while the former offer thoughtful efforts geared at promoting dialogue and understanding which is tragically lost in the political shouting match.

Discussing race in Bermuda has become so predictable, so repetitive, so boring that it’s counterproductive. It’s a distraction to the real issues, and if a political party can convince you that their performance and ideas are secondary to their (and your) race they’ve won.

The outcome of this is that we have one side which preaches ‘blackness’ (for lack of a better term), while the other preaches diversity. I prefer the latter; however I believe the term ‘diversity’ is used far too simplistically.

‘Diversity’ in the Bermudian sense means black and white working together, which is great, but diversity goes much deeper than that; the truth is that there is a great deal of diversity within the races.

And I’m not talking measurements of melanin; I’m talking about diversity of opinion, philosophy and an approach to life. That aspect rarely gets discussed, or even acknowledged.

We are told that whites think one way, and blacks (should) think another. How wrong is that? This is the aspect of diversity which needs surfacing if Bermuda is to move forward and put the political division behind us.

We continue to allow race to dominate the real differences of philosophy and ideology. Is the PLP really progressive? Is the UBP really conservative? Or are they both loose coalitions built around an outdated racial argument? The PLP’s current leader, Dr. Brown, is hardly progressive, or labour, for that matter.

He’s the most unrestrained pro-big (foreign) business Premier Bermuda has seen in a long time — if you’ve got the money he’ll listen. One PLP member described Dr. Brown’s philosophy as ‘racial capitalism’, which is about as accurate a description as I can think of. If however you define the PLP as purely a racial movement then he fits nicely.

On the flip side, the policies that the UBP touts today are hardly textbook conservatism as the party is often characterised. Instead they reflect the broad ideological coalition they’ve assembled and is decidedly centrist, a mix of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism.

A recent Royal Gazette editorial had it right when stating that the traditional political labels have very little relevance to the parties today.

The persistent use of race as a political device is preventing the real issues and the real differences between the parties being debated openly; race is sucking up all of the oxygen. That is a tragedy.

What will serve Bermuda best over both the short and long term is the promotion of diversity of opinion both between and within the races. An ‘honest’ discussion of race designed to promote someone’s re-election prospects isn’t going to achieve that.

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