Social Comparison and Ethnic Relations

The Ethnic Relations Commission has been reconstituted, and, over the past few months, has been interacting with “stakeholders” from the various ethnic groups, to better appreciate their concerns so as to inform their work programme. On Thursday, two members of the Girmitiya Research Center (Guyana), I and Vikash Ramkissoon, met the ERC Commissioners along with two representatives of the Indian Action Committee (IAC) as members of the Indian community.
The GRI’s focus was to remind the body that they were not in existence only to respond to charges of ethnic discrimination – important as that was, and encompassed in No 10 of their 24 enumerated functions. As importantly, they also are supposed to head off ethnic conflict by appreciating the precursors of ethnic conflict and taking preventative measures early in the cycle. We described the inevitable “social comparison process” that occurs in plural societies, and its connection to identity, group and individual self-worth. All with emotional wellsprings.
We advised that the ERC has an obligation to insist and advise that the comparisons, especially in the media, be based on facts and are not invidious, since this leads to escalating claims and counter claims. We illustrated the point by citing the oft-regurgitated assertion that “Indians got free land”, which leads to further claims that they were ‘pampered” and given an unfair advantage over other ethnic groups. We showed from the research of Prof Leslie Potter that of the 165,000 Indian immigrants, only 2600 received land in lieu of their return passage, as was the contracted right of all of them.
We cited No 5 of their mandate: “Promote educational and training programmes and research projects which provide for, and encourage, ethnic peace and harmony”; and proposed that the GRI could engage in research in conjunction with other groups, to ensure greater acceptance of the facts and make them less contested.
The point of checking the invidious comparisons is they are also tied to the insistence of some groups that they have a greater “legitimacy” to make greater claim to the national patrimony. Prior arrival; greater contribution to “building” Guyana; greater suffering; earlier acceptance of western culture; are only some of the arguments used to justify jettisoning the norm of equality of opportunity for all ethnic groups.
Group comparison for group worth, to claim greater legitimacy to the national patrimony, we showed, led to the debilitating politics that has typified our post-independence history: the politics of entitlement. Indians are increasingly defined as “interlopers” with no right to occupy national office. The very first duty of the ERC, we pointed out, was to, “Provide for equality of opportunity between persons of different ethnic groups, and to promote harmony and good relations between such persons.”
It was very possible, we noted, that some groups may need affirmative action – positive discrimination – such as, for instance, as in the US, when there was verified systemic discrimination against those groups in particular facets of national life. In such instances, we pointed out, the policy should be clearly stated, as well as the instances of allowed discriminatory treatment. To simply engage in rectifactory action such as sharing out lands to some groups would inevitably lead to charges of discrimination and increased ethnic tensions.
As such, we recommended our long-proffered “Ethnic Impact Statement” (EIS) that should accompany or follow governmental policies and actions. In ethnically divided societies like Guyana, especially with the extraordinary intrusive power of the state, such assessments would inevitably be made at the ground level, but almost as inevitably would result in one or another group feeling discriminated against.
We noted that this statement was implicitly covered by Number 11 of their mandate: “Monitor and review all legislation and all administrative acts or omissions relating to, or having implications for, ethnic relations and equal opportunities; and, from time to time, prepare and submit proposals for revision of such legislation and administrative acts and omissions.”
We illustrated our contentions by illustrations from the same day’s newspapers. The Minister of Social Cohesion delivering “steel pans” to the University of Guyana’s music programme. Why not, it was asked, some dholaks (Indian two-headed drums) which have never been introduced in the primary, secondary or tertiary levels?
The Government also announced it was contributing $17million to Emancipation Day celebrations, and officially co-sponsoring them. It was asked why there were no comparable contributions to Indian Arrival Celebrations, and would this not lead to claims of unequal treatment?