During the Emancipation commemoration, the call for “equality” reverberated in the air from African Guyanese, much as it did in 1993 when I wrote the following:
One challenge in securing “equality” is inherent in the protean nature of the word itself. While we may agree with the statement, “we are all equally human”, what does it mean? We are not equally tall, strong or intelligent. So, whither equality?
Equality, from this perspective, is contingent on the context or criterion wherein we speak.
The state was founded via a “social contract” to secure the rights of all citizens, so Government-sponsored initiatives promoting equality should insist that whatever the state offers be distributed equally to its citizens. Here I think there would be broad agreement that, since we are all citizens, we should be equal in the possession of the rights guaranteed by the state. Ideally, it follows that if particular citizens do not have rights or equal rights, then the state has failed.
From a group standpoint, this equality of rights by each citizen translates into a proportionate share of the power in a society. This is a very important connection, because ultimately it is the power possessed and exercised by the competing groups that shape the contours of the political and other struggles in the country. The possession of rights is ultimately grounded in the possession of power and its resources.
But citizens classify themselves by any number of criteria – gender, class, ethnicity, etc. If rights were equally distributed to all citizens, then – no matter how we categorise groups – each group would have equal rights, and thus proportionally equal power. However, if the rights are denied to members of a particular classification while others enjoy those rights, the deprived group is said to be oppressed, in that it does not have proportionate power.
In human societies, oppression has been perpetuated on all fronts; thus, a poor woman may be oppressed simultaneously on the basis of her gender, class, ethnicity, age, religion, and race. This is called “intersectionality”.
Each of these forms of oppression is ultimately debilitating, in that they cause pain and suffering, and stifle the humanity of the victims. Societies have to prioritise their activities, since resources are limited.
In Guyana, there is a general consensus that the ethnic/ racial cleavage is the most salient in terms of the demand for the rights (and power) of groups. It is for this reason that, while we support efforts to eliminate all forms of oppression, we believe we must get a jump-start on the goal of racial equality.
“Discrimination” is the selection of an individual or a group for treatment not accorded others equally situated. It is a widespread claim in Guyana by all groups, and we have suggested Ethnic Impact Statements be issued by the Government on state initiatives.
Interestingly, to rectify past discriminatory behaviour, the state can intervene with “positive discrimination”, also called “affirmative action”. This can be used to equitably boost “equality of opportunity”.
However, even if we are to limit our survey to the rights of all citizens, this leads us to other problems. For instance, since men are not endowed equally physically or mentally, equality of rights would lead to material inequalities, as those who are better endowed with the badges of societies’ success forge ahead. This dilemma has led some to extend their definition of equality to mean, additionally, equality of results, but this has proven chimeral and contentious.
Between “equality of opportunity” and “equality of results” lie the efforts of the individual, conditioned by their culture and circumstances to fulfil their expectations. In Guyana, there are assumptions that “equality” means equality of results. In addition to rejecting the intrusive utopian state this would demand – since we know it would fail, based on our own history – leaders have to be brave enough to work and address the cultural challenges at the individual and group levels. There is, after all, the inevitability of group comparison. Are we prepared for five years down the line, when some groups own “all the big houses and big cars and big businesses”? How equal is equal?”
Less than five years later, the Jan 12th 1998 anti-Indian riots in Georgetown exploded. Rather than the impersonal image of a contract, we should see the relationship between individuals and society as more like that between a family member and the family: we are in this together.