March 13, 2009

The Widening Class Divide In The Caribbean



I am not at all surprised the post mortem of Carnival revealed that street vendors and licensed temporary vendors suffered low sales of their food, crafts and other goods for Carnival.

Long before Carnival, I have colleagues who think I am crazy to go to the market in Charlotte street. That is how scared some people are. Some of it is justified some of it is fuelled purely by paranoia and post traumatic stress.


It was bound to happen! The culture of crime has bred nationwide apprehension amongst the middle class and they have segregated themselves in all-inclusive bands and parties. Not even for J’ouvert will they enter the downtown Port of Spain area and be the potential customers of struggling working class vendors. A growing generation will never experience Ole Mas on the South Quay because all they know is chipping around St. Clair, surrounded by security.

Long before Carnival, I have colleagues who think I am crazy to go to the market in Charlotte street. That is how scared some people are. Some of it is justified some of it is fuelled purely by paranoia and post traumatic stress. A female workmate instantly locks her car doors or crosses the road when she sees a group of black men approaching. She explained to me before I took offence that she was not racist but she had been assaulted, robbed and carjacked not once but twice by a gang of young black men in the space of two years.

While I feel for her, imagine what these reactions do to the self esteem of innocent, hard working people are now marginalized purely by how they look and speak as, “that criminal type” from “those violent communities”. Peter pays for Paul and the poor innocent Rasta corn soup man on Carnival Monday seeing no business by his stall. The segregation of the classes clogs the wealth flow and keeps poor people poor. Worse than that, the lack of interaction dehumanizes each class in the other’s eyes. The “haves” become “hoity toity, oppressors” and the “have nots” become savage degenerates.



Do you remember when the classes mixed freely without fear? I do.


Do you remember the days when upwardly mobile families would invite the kids of less fortunate families into their home? When I was growing up, I interacted with children who were less fortunate and more fortunate than I. My father took disenfranchised kids from our community with us on our family outings and included them in our family pool limes at Petrotrin sports club. They played in our backyard, ate at our table and picked fruit from our garden. The thought of being robbed never crossed my family’s mind. Then again, this was down South, over twenty years ago. Socializing across the class divide made me appreciate my good fortune and develop empathy for those who did not have the same opportunities I did. They got to see a small window of a life they might want to aspire to through hard work someday. But more than that, they were made to feel, “You are worthwhile just for being you and are every much as good as we are.” That has to be one of the biggest self-esteem boosters ever.

Even if your family never went that far to be inclusive, I am sure you remember when the poor and working class aspired to one day, through hard work become middle class citizens and in return, the middle class patronized the burgeoning efforts of those struggling to lift themselves up through entrepreneurial endeavors; the corner shop, the parlor, the nuts vending, the craft making, the seamstress work, the cabinet making, the fry fish stall. Your family might have been richer than theirs but it did not mean they had any less class than you. How many of you could name someone who turned their shack into a big house and sent their children to university through those efforts?

Those days are dying fast.


The middle class and poorer classes now eye one another suspiciously across an ever widening chasm. Today as I watched a group of Mucurapo boys stare at a Fatima boy being picked up by his daddy in a bright shiny SUV, I suddenly recognised the expression on their faces. It was envy and anger. They are witnessing a life they believe will never be theirs. I would love to comfort them and say, “That is not true. Of course it can be yours! With hard work and determination you can succeed!” But I would be kidding them. Besides, can our planet and our country really cope with a hundred thousand more successful drivers of SUVs on the road? We somehow need to start redefining success as spiritual and not material based to all our young people, no matter the class. We all have to re-discover simple pleasures and inner contentment and slow and steady progress that is holistic and humane to all.

A new generation has lost all context of what promotes success and so the young people in the schemes and gang ridden communities have started to attribute the success of the middle and upper classes solely to luck of birth and/or law breaking. Their reasoning is, “You must have been a former oppressor or done something evil in Babylon system to be prosperous and so I should be able to take from you with a clear conscience.” This sentiment is being reinforced daily by their dance-hall music that speaks to their disempowerment and demonizes those with wealth and/or power. In addition think about what the young generation born into poverty and unable to envision a way out are learning from the corruption, power grabbing and ostentation displayed by our leaders and the brutality of the police. In their minds, “If the Ministers and CEOs could behave so, why can’t I?”

Unless pure academic brilliance affords them the chance to attend a “prestige” school, they will never be exposed to any alternative window because no longer do the classes mix in Trinidad and Tobago. Envy stems from a feeling of lack and disempowerment and that feeling is somewhat justified among the poor because they were abandoned. Very few Trinidadians descended from anything close to aristocracy and old money. Like Anthony Hall put it, “We are all gutter people!” and it is true. Just two generations back in my family is the gutter of abject poverty. Perhaps it is three generations back in your family. But whether it was your great grandfather or your great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather that broke through into a higher class, we abandoned the rest of our countrymen and those who just recently emerged from the lower classes are the most guilty of doing so.



There are only a handful of families in Trinidad and Tobago who descended from wealth and status. According to Anthony Hall, we are all "gutter people" deep down.


Our lack of historical context, self-esteem and patriotism made us so wrapped up in our egos that we could not come together to proactively meet our nation’s evolving social challenges with proper social interventions. We ran away to keep up with the Jonses in the first world and eventually began to stick up our noses at people stuck in the same muck our parents and grandparents crawled out of many years ago. We did not provide enough mentors. We got complacent and self-absorbed. Some of us are also guilty of taking advantage of unfair opportunities and political favors for our own enrichment thus enabling short-sighted, immature, grasping, undeserving people to take power. These people crippled and exploited the desperation of the poor even more with “work-ethic paralyzing” programmes like CEPEP and failed to intervene with pro-active social services where needed.



How do you explain communities with over twenty churches; Holy Revival This, Bible Faith That and Kingdom The Other, all of which receive tithes and financial offerings and enjoy tax exemption and yet the community in which they operate continues to be crime ridden and disenfranchised year after year?


The religious community is not blameless either. They failed to evolve spiritually and sanctimoniously applied the same old simpleton sermons to ever complicated social and family issues. They allowed intellectual laziness and wolves to fleece and rape the flock, breeding distrust for spirituality among the youth. Of course, there are true spiritual champions out there toiling against amazing odds. But how do you explain communities with over twenty churches; Holy Revival This, Bible Faith That and Kingdom The Other, all of which receive tithes and financial offerings and enjoy tax exemption and yet the community in which they operate continues to be crime ridden and disenfranchised year after year? I thought true spiritual succor is supposed to radiate out and transforms lives. So what kind of succor are these communities getting from all the religious organizations in their midst?



We do not live in a country big enough for young people to be raised in a complete class bubble like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.


My message to the middle and upper classes is this, Trinidad and Tobago is not New York where the rich and poor live in different boroughs separated by miles of highway, rivers, bridges and rail. You cannot pretend to be like a socialite in Westchester who apart from her hired help, never has to see, speak to or interact with anyone poorer than she is unless she goes out of her way to interact with them. In our country, the rich and poor live on the same hill and when you open your UV coated designer bay windows in your gated community the stench of some single mother’s desperation is just a whiff away.

Trinidad and Tobago is too small to cope with a widening class chasm. So save that ostentatious posturing for your second homes in Miami. There you have loads of people in that niche to compete with. But over here, you look like a ridiculously obese fish in a small pond. Ignore all you like, one day like Marie Antoinette; you will be forced to pay attention.


Trying to live a life of luxurious exclusivity in Trinidad and Tobago is like trying to show off with a slice of six layered, Belgian chocolate cake amidst starving Sudanese children. If you can feel comfortable doing that you either suffer from severe small penis complex or you are an unadulterated bastard, plain and simple. Who are you showing off for? Our roads are too small for your Hummers and too traffic and pothole ridden for your Porches.



Saw a Hummer parked outside Trotters the other day, taking up all the pavement and half the roadside and I felt exactly like this guy did. I would love to make "I have a small penis" bumper sticker to put on all these vehicles.


I am not saying to take a vow of poverty. By all means, live a good, comfortable life but do you really need to leave a carbon footprint the size of the Queen’s Park Savannah on the planet? I too fully intend to become wealthy in every sense but I can be perfectly content to come home to an eco-friendly, solar powered, wooden two bedroom shack by the beach, a second hand bio-fueled jeep and enough land to plant my own food, even if I had millions in the bank and could travel the world. In addition, you bet your bottom dollar my community will become an extension of my home and my positive values will be shared along with my wealth. What is the purpose of wealth if not to feed others? Why would anyone want to wear a suit of steaks and venture out amongst hungry wolves every day? Why not at least entertain the idea of living simply and generously in the one place where it makes sense to do so. Trinidad and Tobago is too small to cope with a widening class chasm. So save that ostentatious posturing for your second homes in Miami. There you have loads of people in that niche to compete with. But over here, you look like a ridiculously obese fish in a small pond. Ignore all you like, one day like Marie Antoinette; you will be forced to pay attention.

If you thought that it is not your business that those “hoity toity” people over the hill are being robbed and assaulted by young men from your neighbourhood, think again. It should matter to you!


My message for the struggling entrepreneurs hailing from crime and gang ridden neighbourhoods who are depend on patronage from the upwardly mobile is this; Did you really think you can afford to nurture crime in your community and not see the impact come right back to bite you? Everything is a cycle. So if you thought that it is not your business that those “hoity toity” people over the hill are being robbed and assaulted by young men from your neighbourhood, think again. It should matter to you! If you were tempted to feel some kind of “equalizing justice” because you struggling to make ends meet while they flying abroad and blowing four thousand dollars on a Tribe costume easy, easy. Think again!

Some of you
know
who the gangs are. You know who has the guns. You know who has stolen goods in their home or for sale. Take responsibility! Be like the women of Liberia who stood against an entire militia that outnumbered them ten to one because they were fed up with the violence.


In my work-place of middle and upper-middle income people, I was perhaps the lone sympathetic voice to the cause of the struggling man in my office. You see, I have met many millionaire clients who made me cringe with their crassness and ignorance and many an office cleaner with inner dignity, manners and honesty. In my heart I know that lower class does not mean low class or low morals and I still feel that way. That does not mean that after being pick-pocketed during Panorama I will put myself at risk again in that crowded mess where those vending stalls are. We all need to do something now to improve our communities’ images and maybe we can rebuild some trust and share once more like we used to.

In my heart I know that lower class does not mean low class or low morals and I still feel that way. That does not mean that after being pick-pocketed during Panorama I will put myself at risk again in that crowded mess where those vending stalls are.

1 comment:

Mad Professah said...

Very interesting...I grew up in Barbados and didn't notice the class divide as much..but that was in the early 1980s....