Race, Power and Privilege
4th June 2020
By: Christopher Curry PhD
Associate Professor of History
University of The Bahamas
The death of George Floyd in the US has ignited a movement that aims to challenge the issues of racial injustice and police brutality that continue to plague that nation. The initial video footage was deeply disturbing, reflecting a kind of brute force and public display of violence towards black bodies that tragically rekindled memories in the minds of many Americans of lynching and other acts of violence perpetrated by the state or by those individuals under cloak and dagger who held power and privilege in their respective communities. Sadly, 2020 reminds us of the unbroken violence towards blacks in American history and contemporary society. The dirty laundry list is long, including: the 1965 Watts Riots that broke out in a black neighbourhood in Los Angeles; the 1992 Los Angeles Riots spurred by the acquittal of four white cops accused of beating Rodney King despite clear video footage; and earlier this year, a retired vigilante law enforcer who decided to kill a young black male jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, under the assumption that he had burglarized the neighbourhood. Such acts of violence are not random, nor are they localized anomalies. They are a systemic pattern of violence towards black lives that really do matter. Arguably, slavery inaugurated this form of domestic terrorism in 1619, but to be sure, it has gone unabated despite the passing of “landmark legislation’’ such as the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Voters Right Act of 1965. Even the election of Barak Obama, the first African American President, did not resolve the thorny race issues that continue to remind Americans of their original sin—the twin pillars of slavery and racism.
What about The Bahamas?
Counterfactuals are always useful when looking at these events from across the waters in The Bahamas. Would Ahmaud Arbery suffer the same fate had he been jogging in Port New Providence, Old Fort Bay, Lyford Cay or any other upscale community in The Bahamas? If arrested in The Bahamas, could a black man such as George Floyd suffer a similar fate in The Bahamas at the hands of a violent arresting officer? Could Botham Jean, an outstanding young man and church leader, be gunned down by an off-duty police officer in his own apartment in Blair Estates? It would be easy to answer a resounding ‘no’ to all of the above. However, a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of race in The Bahamas shows that we are not immune from the pandemic of hate that has infected our neighbours to the north. Notwithstanding the above, important distinctions regarding race need to be made when comparing us to our neighbours to the north.
Legacy of Racism
In The Bahamas there has been a long legacy of racism that extended beyond full emancipation in 1838. In the immediate post-emancipation period, the labouring masses were subject to exploitation in the form of the truck, share and labour tenancy systems. These labour systems (much like sharecropping in the US), were organized by the merchant class to create relations of debt and dependency and forestall the possibility of black men and women earning wages. Beyond labour exploitation, the ruling white oligarchy, later termed the Bay Street Boys, complicity collaborated with the British Colonial Office to maintain a hierarchical race class order, depriving the black masses of even a rudimentary education, and purposely orchestrating a benign neglect in key areas of social advancement including access to health, social services and public works and utilities. With the advent of modern tourism in the 1920s, there was an important shift toward a Jim Crow model of race relations. As such, black entertainers had to enter through the back door of hotels to play in front of all white audiences, public transportation, where it existed, was segregated to the point where the Dart, a mail boat servicing north Eleuthera, gave white passengers exclusive rights to cabin space. Even death did not prevent the spectre of racism from influencing the dearly departed as graveyards maintained a strict adherence to racial segregation. Etienne Dupuch’s famous anti-discriminatory resolution in 1956 may have halted the advance of apartheid like race laws, but it did nothing to discourage a culture of privilege and rank based on whiteness or the de facto presence of elite clubs, social networks and gated communities in The Bahamas.
Class and Colourism
In the post-independence era, arguably class and colourism have become more prevalent than race. Bahamians of various colours appear preoccupied with, and fixated, on Eurocentric standards of beauty. What is known as ‘bleaching’ remains a common practice, although it has been sanitized with new language to appeal to a younger generation of self-haters. Thus, we have skin toner, or lightening cream. We also praise those that have wavy, smother textured ‘good hair’, even as we disdain those who have kinky, thick follicles. In sum, we appear to aspire towards ontological whiteness, inscribed in our minds about what is good, what is beautiful and what is right.
Our aesthetic standards of beauty are not the only issue. Class and colourism continue to remain problematic issues in contemporary Bahamian society. As a sign of wealth and status, many Afro-descended Bahamians aspire to move out of the historically and culturally rich communities of Over-the-Hill, seeking signs and symbols of upward mobility manifested in their new residential homes or apartments on the periphery of Nassau. The interesting version of white flight in the US is expressed inversely in The Bahamas by black Bahamians moving to Eastern or Western districts of New Providence, and if Westridge or Winton are too expensive or unattainable, then City 2000 in the South is the compromise.
Beyond the residential settlement patterns of New Providence, a more disturbing issue of class is the increasing wealth inequality in The Bahamas. Wealthy enclaves of influence are juxtaposed in relatively close proximity to disadvantaged communities—an interesting feature of island life. In disadvantaged communities, the poor and destitute cannot afford health insurance, nor can they pay the cost of school fees to send their child or children to a private school. The poor, and mostly black persons in these communities often lack proper housing with running water and electricity. These same persons are made vulnerable by the state as they are forced to fight for scarce food supplies, and when daily challenges force them to the streets to survive, they are often criminalized for their behaviour, whether selling coconut water beyond a curfew, or simply marginalized as a vagrant and idler for loitering in public spaces. These same persons experience the law and judicial system asymmetrically from our advantaged communities. They cannot afford expensive lawyers, nor can they pay the expensive bail charges levied against them for their “crimes.’’
Racial Profiling and White Privilege
Young black men are made increasingly vulnerable by our laws, that give disproportionate sentences for offenses that appear to target them exclusively. And let us not think for a moment that racial profiling does not exist in The Bahamas. My own experiences in the recent past prove this to be true. My nephew, a young, bright, aspiring teacher and UB student, was recently interrogated in front of our property by a police officer who assumed he was up to no good in our neighbourhood. Tragically, my nephew was forced to retrieve his personal identification from within our home, to prove to the policeman that he actually lived on the premises.
The experiences of my nephew are not to be considered in a vacuum or as an isolated case peculiar to him. Indeed, young black Bahamians encounter a difficult world, where obstacles to success and advancement often appear insurmountable. In contrast, my experience as a white Bahamian underscores the persistence of white privilege. I grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood, had the benefit of not only a private school education in The Bahamas, but my parents could also afford to send me off to boarding school and university in Canada. Financial advantages aside, on returning to The Bahamas as a teacher, I have observed the insidious ways white privilege functions in The Bahamas. For instance, I am given opportunities to get first rate customer service (often assuming I have lots of money to spend), but my young nephew has to tow the long lines; I am never stopped for road checks by law enforcement officers, but he always appears to get pulled over. I have cordial and friendly relations with my neighbours who never suspect me of being a burglar, but with my nephew and others of colour, this is obviously not the case.
Clearly there are many complicated issues surrounding race, class, and colourism in the 21st century Bahamas. We as Bahamians need to avoid the temptation of sweeping these persistent and vexing problems under the proverbial rug. Rather than perfuming the past and the present (as we so often do), Bahamians of all phenotypes and ethnic origins ought to seriously engage in open and frank discussions about these issues—perhaps a national truth and reconciliation commission is the order of the day. Beyond this, we need to explore ways to rid our country of the barriers of exclusion, the institutional inequalities that persist in our laws, our policies, and our practices. Finally, we ought to show support, concern and solidarity with those protesting racial injustice in the US. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
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