Not Completely Black and White
Published: Sunday | October 4, 2009
Kevin O'Brien Chang, Contributor

"In the western industrialised world, the idea of electing a member of a racial minority to the highest office seems an astonishing breakthrough. But Jamaica's 95 per cent black population elected a white man - Edward Seaga - as its prime minister in 1980."
- Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times, October 23, 2008

Only tourist board pollyannas could pretend skin colour does not matter in Jamaica. One glance through the social pages shows the still existing inequities - itself a topic for another day. Yet, imperfect as they are, race relations here are still better than in most places.

One reason for this, posits Gleaner chairman Oliver Clarke, is that race in Jamaica often has as much to do with behaviour as appearance. In his experience, those seen as actively contributing to the national welfare are considered true Jamaicans - i.e., black - while those who are not are considered interlopers - i.e., non-black.

The lack of racial animosity here suggests he may be on to something fundamental.

Indeed, many key fighters for workers' rights have been light-skinned figures -William Knibb, Alexander Bustamante, Edward Seaga and Michael Manley, for instance - who were at times mistrusted by their own upper classes, but beloved by the poor, black masses.

The white, English missionary, Knibb, was one of the first crusaders for racial equality. In his paper 'William Knibb: A National Hero?', Devon Dick wrote, "No other person of his era demonstrated such faith in the prowess of the black people."

Complexion of character

On August 1, 1839, he declared (in words inscribed on a memorial plaque in the Falmouth Baptist Chapel):

"The same God who made the white made the black man. The same blood that runs in the white man's veins of flows in yours. It is not the complexion of the skin, but the complexion of character that makes the great difference between one man and another."

Bustamante, Seaga and Manley certainly followed in his footsteps, by trying to radically change inequitable systems, rather than seeking to preserve the unearned privileges of skin colour.

The colour question has shifted over the years. When P.J. Patterson became prime minister in 1993, based on his party's internal elections, upper St Andrew verandas wondered sotto voce if Jamaicans, as a whole, would elect a black prime minister. Had not all previously elected leaders - Bustamante, Norman Manley, Sangster, Michael Manley, Seaga - been brown or white? Had not black Hugh Shearer, who was chosen prime minister by JLP MPs after Sangster died, been trounced by three-quarter white Michael Manley? Patterson answered such questions by winning three straight general elections.

Now, the only one-on-one conversation I've ever had with Bruce Golding was back in his National Democratic Party days. During which I remarked that many considered the NDM a "white and brown man" party. He answered sharply, "Who are you to question my blackness?"

No son of privilege

Of course, I quickly changed the topic. Yet, I wasn't questioning Golding's blackness, merely trying to point out that there are those who do. Golding's father was visibly black, as are his wife and children, and he was no son of privilege. But I wager that a not inconsiderable percentage of Jamaicans assume Golding's parents were light brown like himself, and that he was born in well-to-do circumstances.

Furthermore, some probably believe that being - in their eyes - an uptown brown man, he is naturally going to defend uptown brown man interests, and not those of poor blacks. No doubt Golding, and those close to him, would scoff at such suggestions. But I've heard more than a few arguments along these lines.

In short, there are still a non-negligible number of poor, black Jamaicans who assume - unless it is proven otherwise to them beyond doubt - that light-skinned persons are privileged, and will defend the privileges of the light-skinned.

This is hardly a recent phenomenon. When St William Grant invited Bustamante to speak on a United Negro Improvement Association platform in 1938 - it was Busta's first public address - some members of the Garveyite crowd objected to his colour. No Jamaican of his complexion had ever been seen at a street meeting making common cause with the poor. But when Bustamante later showed himself willing to criticise openly the colonial authorities, and even risk his life for the rights of the oppressed, an unbreakable bond was established between him and the workers.

What does this have to do with Jamaican politics in 2009? Well, anyone with eyes can see that the JLP hierarchy is on average lighter complexioned than the PNP's. Why this is so is again an issue for another day. But given this visual reality, it's hardly surprising that some voters regard the JLP as a 'rich, uptown brown man' party.

My guess, based on vox pops and past polls, is that class and colour are important to maybe five or 10 per cent of voters. Not a large percentage perhaps, but enough to sway an election.

Many pundits wondered why, despite 18 years of a tainted PNP government, that hardly delivered Singaporean prosperity, the JLP barely won the 2007 general election by 3,000 votes. Some suspect, though we will never know, that unspoken class and colour factors played a role.

The global financial crisis, coupled with decades of borrow-and-spend government, has plunged Jamaica into its deepest economic crisis for a generation. Next year's budget will unavoidably bring sharp cuts across the board. But as ever, those with less disposable income will suffer the most hardships. So, as well as demonstrating technical financial expertise, this Government will have to convince the nation that the pain is not being disproportionately felt.

If the poorer classes feel only they are shouldering the burden, there might well be social upheaval. And if enough people begin to brand the JLP as the 'big man party' it will be swept from power, regardless of the PNP's leadership or organisational failings.

However, a special tax on government bonds would be a classic 'penny wise, pound foolish' move. Arbitrarily altering a previously contracted risk reward return is a sure way to spark capital flight. Jamaican bond ratings have already fallen to CCC+, meaning 'vulnerable to default'. Any government interference would see a further downgrade and push up borrowing rates for the country. The costs would vastly outweigh the benefits.

A more feasible 'share-the-pain' policy would be an increased tax rate for high-income earners by, say, taxing earnings above $J6 million at 33 per cent - which is lower than Britain's 50 per cent top rate.

Motor vehicle registration

Another would be a percentage-of-valuation calculated on annual vehicle registration fee. How about a $5,000 base, with a sliding 0.1 per cent rate increase for every $100,000 valuation, up to a maximum rate of one per cent? This means 0.1 per cent for a $100,000 car totalling $5,100; 0.5 per cent for a $500,000 car totalling $7,500; one per cent for a $1 million car totalling $15,000; one per cent for a $5 million car totalling $55,000.

Furthermore, there almost seems to be more luxury vehicles in Jamaica than payers of income tax. The authorities should ensure that those driving BMWs, Escalades, Range Rovers, etc., are making tax payments commensurate with their lifestyles.

Earlier this year, the JLP pledged to implement the 2004 Matalon Tax Report. Now is surely the time for Audley Shaw to put his money where his mouth is.

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