When I first wrote on African Guyanese marginalization, I had hoped that it would raise the level of debate on this most important subject. Unfortunately, except for a very thoughtful Stabroek News editorial, the responses have had the cumulative effect of dragging the debate further into the mud. I was under the assumption that there was no argument over the fact that African Guyanese were economically and politically marginalized. So I intended to draw a clear line between those of us on the one hand who see African marginalization within the context of the larger class marginalization of the down-pressed racial groups, including East Indians and Amerindians, and the wider global marginalization of non-white peoples and countries and those on the other hand who see it in exclusively racial terms. I also intended to cast African marginalization as a historical phenomenon whose evolution is reflective of the racial and class relations that have characterized the Guyanese political economy.
Insofar as the competition between Africans and Indians for political power over the last five decades has affected African marginalization, it has been the inability of the governments to seriously tackle the task of uprooting the historical causes of this problem. In this regard Indians cannot be charged with marginalizing Africans, for they have neither the power nor scope to do so. This does not take away from the fact that governments operating in the name of Indians have presided over the persistent marginalization of Africans. But so have governments operating in the name of Africans.
Asking me to provide proof of African Guyanese marginalization is somewhat defensive, but more importantly it exposes how unfeeling Guyanese have become to each other. If after 160 years of living together Indians cannot understand and acknowledge African pain and concerns and Africans cannot understand and acknowledge Indian pain and concern, then in a sense we deserve the society in which we live. In denying African marginalization, we are absolving almost five hundred years of slavery, colonization and neo colonization.
If the problem, as I explained it, is historical and systemic, then an examination of the historical development of the country’s political economy and the location of the various groups in that process will reveal the evidence. If Africans, after more than 300 years of enslavement left the plantation with no compensation, then they began their post-slavery sojourn at a great disadvantage; they were marginalized from the beginning. If after initially developing their own democratic political forms in their villages, whereby they could and did directly make decisions that affected their lives, these were undermined by the autocratic Crown Colony System, then they were politically dispossessed. If the authoritarian organization of the economy located them in sectors that made them look “respectable” while imprisoning them as underpaid servants of the state, then their livelihood was determined by a state that has been hostile to their independence since emancipation.
The location of groups in Guyana’s economic structures has been determined primarily on grounds of race and previous servitude. Contrary to what some people feel, Africans do not grope for slavery to explain the African Guyanese condition; slavery by necessity has followed the previously enslaved and continuously defines their relations to the rest of the society and vice versa. The very act of freeing themselves from slavery put Africans on an ongoing collision course with the powers that controlled the destiny of the state and society. Those who saw enslavement as the route to wealth and power could not and did not peacefully co-exist with those who saw their freedom as the route to wealth and empowerment. It is within the context of this struggle between these two forces, which has characterized socioeconomic and political relations in Guyana since 1834, that African Guyanese marginalization must be located and understood. Since independence, the skin color of those who control the levers of power has changed, but the authoritarian relations have remained intact.
I define marginalization in the following terms: (a) being on the periphery or “margins” of the political and economic power structures; (b) exercising no direct or indirect influence over national political and economic decisions; (c) not having equality of opportunity with other groups in the society; (d) inability to access resources needed to individually and collectively accumulate wealth; (e) having your labor power exploited without just compensation; (f) being most vulnerable to diseases, crime, drugs, bribery, and other forms of social violence; and (g) being most susceptible to cultural penetration from the outside on account of little or no internal cultural buffers.
Where are African Guyanese located and not located in the current political economy?
They are overwhelmingly wage laborers who work for the government. They are not in close proximity to the sectors that generate the accumulation of individual wealth. They are overwhelmingly in the armed forces, which in economic terms is the equivalent of wage earnings. In political terms, they are outside of the power arena, as their elected leaders do not influence the decisions of the government. They have no direct control of their villages and wards, as they do not directly elect their local leaders. The villages are part of a larger “local” unit, which undermines ownership and control of ancestral space, something that Africans won for themselves after emancipation. They dominate the parallel market as retailers, drug pushers and enforcers.
What does this mean? First, as government workers, they are the most structurally adjusted in a structurally adjusted economy. Their wages are constantly contracted and they face layoff and a simultaneous diminishing of potential employment thanks to the IMF/World Bank/Globalization shrinking of government. But more than that, the very state of economic dependence on government engenders among other things fear of political bosses, while the low wages encourage theft. Second, because historically Africans have been deliberately placed on the fringes of the private enterprise network, they have not had access to the capital that is needed to even begin to compete in this exclusive arena. Except for Globe Trust, there are no Black-owned banks, not many Black family businesses, and no sustainable government program aimed at allowing them access to loans on generous terms.
Third, although Africans dominate the armed forces, this is first and foremost a source of bread and butter. The ordinary rank is basically a wage earner. Many have pointed to this dominance of the armed forces as a source of African power. Well, it may be a potential source of power, but in actuality it is not. Guyana’s military does not have an autonomous power base, as is the case in Latin America and some parts of Africa. The armed forces are constitutionally and institutionally civilian-controlled; they defer to the political directorate. African members of the armed forces have no way of translating this membership into African empowerment. They may refuse to pursue African contravention of the law or protect African bandits, but how do these translate into African empowerment? Why have the African police under both African and Indian governments continue to disproportionately kill Africans?
Fourth, the African masses, like all masses, have never legitimately held political power in Guyana. The 28-year PNC rule resulted from electoral fraud and by necessity shut out all groups, including Africans. It did not treat African empowerment as a first rate issue as it did not have to depend on Africans for its electoral legitimacy. Cover yes, but legitimacy no. Fifth, Africans have no direct control over their villages, the one symbol of power they had at the time of independence. They make no decisions over their immediate lives. Sixth, while others import and wholesale, Africans sell for them. Africans work for others even in the drug trade where they are the pushers, petty sellers and mules.
When one adds to this the cultural degradation that Africans continue to experience, the alienation and marginalization are complete. Robbed completely of language and culture, the African Guyanese must mimic others and deny or make excuses for his/her true heritage. Economic dispossession and political alienation lead to poverty, criminality, hopelessness, and cynicism. These are the symptoms of the larger monster called marginalization.
Is there a Black middle class? Yes. But that is a very small exception to the larger rule. Are the vast majority of Indians marginalized? Yes. Is it correct to say that Africans are not marginalized because Indians are equally poor? No. Indian poverty does not negate African marginalization. Some see the statement of African marginalization as an indictment of East Indians. On this score, they are at one with the African extremists. If Indians have had more access to economic opportunities and the political power structures, that is the function of history and location, and in the case of politics, population size.
Insofar as members of the PPP government deliberately discriminate against or alienate
Africans, I think they do so primarily because Africans support their political rival. This is standard political behavior in the Third World, but in the case of Guyana, the racial element translates it into an explosive device. But the PPP does not have to overtly discriminate against Africans because it presides over a system that facilitates covert and overt discrimination of the down-pressed. By continuing to hold on to this system in the name of democracy, the PPP must face the charge of “democratically” marginalizing Blacks. But the truth is that the PPP is merely presiding over the marginalization of Blacks as previous regimes have done.
The charge that my attempt to explain African marginalization fuels black rage does not fly. To the contrary, the continued chorus that denies that there is African marginalization fuels the rage. It is arrogance of the highest order when the elite of your race group holds the levers of power and you insist on telling those who feel individual and collective pain resulting from the system that they are not hurting, that they are feigning pain. You are only angering them more. I don’t have to tell Africans they are marginalized; they know it because they experience it every day.
Dr. Jagan acknowledged this when he said that blacks were at the bottom of the social ladder. In a 1988 speech, he also said: “What needs to be done is a recognition of the racial problem and the implementation of certain reforms. Apart from constitutional guarantees, these should include a Race Relations Board, an equal opportunity law, fair employment practices, and affirmative action as in the United States.” I rest my case.