Deconstructing false narratives

The veritable cavalcade of world leaders and their representatives – official and official – into Guyana and Guyanese affairs recently should remind us that we are being inveigled into webs that are not necessarily woven with our interests in mind.
Meanwhile, our internal contradictions centred around race/ethnicity continue to bedevil us, even as external and internal players exploit those fault lines for their own ends. With our general elections scheduled for late next year, we should not only expect, but prepare to deal with, the now unfortunate “traditional” ethnic tensions that erupt in that triggering contest for political power.
That our political competition is still predominantly along ethnic lines presents dangerous challenges, because of the intertwined group and individual feelings of identity and self-worth. This was shown recently when violence was triggered by Pres Granger’s incendiary statements in West Berbice on the Henry boys’ murders, after the shameful attempted rigging of the 2020 elections. The international players attracted by our newfound oil wealth will definitely exploit and exacerbate our divisions.
The experience with ethnic conflict across the globe demonstrates that, ultimately, they are driven by group perceptions of inequalities which, whether real or constructed, must be addressed. For the real inequalities, policies must be structured that provide equal opportunities for all – but also affirmative action in areas where groups might have been historically discriminated against by the state. Ethnic impact statements must accompany all governmental programmes, and where participation rates continue to lag, explanations must be sought and adjustments made.
However, from our history, we have seen that certain narratives continue to be peddled by ethnic entrepreneurs, and these narratives mask the reasons for differential group performance. They create a grievance mindset that locks the misinformed group into suboptimal performances and continued cycles of despair.
Take, for instance, the narrative that Indian Guyanese are somehow ontologically better entrepreneurs than African Guyanese. The former’s better economic performance, even after the Burnhamite programme to empower African Guyanese, is a consequence of the different historical trajectories of the two groups, that have sedimented into different perspectives on economic accumulation.
The introduction of plantations in the New World during the late 17th century demanded labour in numbers and rigour that Europe could not supply, and they enslaved Africans to fill the gap. They introduced laws which classified them as subhuman in order to justify the practice, and inflicted extreme violence that not only wiped out almost all of their cultural practices, but hegemonised them into accepting European ones that perpetuated much of that colonised mindset.
After the abolition of slavery in 1838, rather than moving to “free labour” as was promised, ex-enslaved Africans were kept de facto unfree, as laws were passed to discourage them from moving off the plantations – such that land must be purchased in 100-acre plots.
The mental slavery was perpetuated when the two institutions the ex-slaves looked to for spiritual and economic emancipation – the Church and School – were both controlled by Europeans.
The latter also introduced unfree Indentured labour – Madeirans and Chinese, but mostly Indians. Lawfare was waged against the indentureds, especially the “heathen” Indian Hindus and Muslims. Their contracts were structured to keep them bound to the plantation in such a way that if they were not in the fields, they had to be either in jail or hospital. Infractions of their contract were subject to criminal penalties, and these were applied liberally.
However, in India, which the British East India Company conquered between 1657 and 1818, the British passed laws that changed the rules on land taxes, crops that should be cultivated etc., which resulted in millions dying in famine and being pushed off the land to become excess labour. Under the new racism, Indians were also lower ontologically than whites.
Indentured Indian labour was first used within India in the tea plantations of Assam, then in the colonies such as Mauritius and the West Indies. They arrived as economic immigrants, and the majority who remained seized the opportunity to first rent swampland on the plantations to supplement their abysmal wages. In the 1890s, they purchased Crown land when the restrictions were removed to facilitate gold mining. By that time, African Guyanese had been socialised away from farming, and in the words of Desmond Hoyte, away from looking “beyond the horizon”.
New narratives must be created which can lead to the success of all, but especially African Guyanese in the present neo-liberal, free market dispensation. These will not come from the new carpetbaggers.