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Be Careful How You Treat Black People

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 29, 2020

"No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man, without finding the other end of it about his own neck."

—Frederick Douglass

For the past three weeks, the world's attention has been transfixed by the racial tensions that engulfed the United States. We, in T&T may have been spared "the most vulgar displays of systemic racism" as the prime minister said but, as the old people say: "What miss yo' ent pass yo."

The massive resistance against the racism that engulfed the US has to do with how white people and their government treat black people on a day-to-day basis. In T&T I am not sure that our government and those in power are treating its black citizens as they should. An immediate example is how PNM's Screening Committee treated (and is treating) Robert Le Hunte because he took "a principled stance" on an important issue.

Le Hunte served PNM for 31 years. On May 21, 20 of La Brea's 24-member constituency executive and 16 of its 19 party groups supported his candidacy. At the time of writing, a majority of the Screening Committee finds him unacceptable to serve the constituency because, as a senior party official put it, he cannot be counted on to support the government on critical issues.

This raises the question: Why is Farris Al-Rawi, whose grandfather led the march to censure the first prime minister for statements he (Williams) is alleged to have made, more trustworthy than Le Hunte? Why is Winston Peters who has jumped from one party to another more trustworthy than Le Hunte? Why is so much faith placed in Clarence Rambarath who has been selected to fight the Chaguanas East seat although he lost the Mayaro seat in the last election; and why is Andrew Gabriel, a former UNC member, such a powerful figure within the PNM and so trusted although he represents no discernible group within or outside the party?

Many people believe Le Hunte was passed over because he might impede Stuart Young's ascendency to become the party leader. It is not that Young, a hard-working party member, should not be considered for the leadership position in the future, but it is difficult to think there is any other logical reason why Le Hunte was not selected for the La Brea seat after having served his party so faithfully.

Many PNM party members are concerned about the few black members in the Cabinet and the inconsequential portfolios they hold. They are also concerned about how the party treats black party members, the poverty among black people, and the deteriorating conditions in which they live.

Many observers have argued that the poverty of African Americans, caused mostly by racism, led to their massive uprising in the US. African Americans "still suffer from a large economic gap compared with the rest of the country when it comes to wealth, income and wages, even after the longest US expansion on recordů.

"African-American households are still disproportionately reliant on low- wage labour, under-represented in business and equity ownership, and unable to share in many of the gains happening elsewhere. That is on top of endemic concerns about lack of access to quality healthcare, housing and education" (Financial Times, June 4). Sixty-three percent of Latino workers and 54 percent of Black workers earn low wages, compared with 37 percent of white workers (Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings).

Blacks have died in disproportionate numbers from COVID-19 because of poverty and racism rather than unhygienic practices as Fitzgerald Hinds suggested (Express, April 17). The Financial Times noted: "Deep-seated disparities in access to health care, high rates of poverty and cramped living conditions have combined to make the virus especially lethal for people of color" (June 10). Although African-Americans are 13 percent of the US population, they account for 25 percent of the COVID deaths. In spite of Le Hunte's stellar professional career, he can be discarded like a piece of dirty paper to make room for Young's ambition. Not one member of the Screening Committee or PNM's hierarchy has spoken publicly about how shabbily the party is treating Le Hunte. They all fear the wrath of the political leader who has carte blanche to act as he chooses.

This has not always been so among PNM leaders. In 1978 Eric Williams accepted the will of his party although he labeled the five MPs whom he had not favored as "millstones around my neck." In 2010 Patrick Manning chose Keith Rowley as a candidate in spite of his antipathy toward Rowley.

When PNM changed its constitution in December 2012, it was "unanimously agreedů that the political leader will no longer have absolute power in the selection of election candidates."

Franklyn Khan, PNM's chairman observed: "The party cannot descend into the adulation of leaders. I have seen instances where persons were made subject to that power."

Keith Rowley was more emphatic: "If that person (political leader) doesn't like you, you have a high hill to climb" (Trinidad Guardian, December 2, 2012).

On Thursday Debbie Reed, a La Brea party member, told me: "I am a ground worker. The people on the ground want Le Hunte. But they do not care about our opinion. They forget us once they win their seats. We have no pedigree."

PNM's Screening Committee has treated Le Hunte and La Brea constituency members shamefully. They should be careful that the chain they are about to place around Le Hunte's ankle does not come back to strangle them particularly when the treatment of black people the world over is under close scrutiny.

The party should listen to its members and its previous pronouncements.

Prof. Cudjoe's email address is scudjoe@wellesley.edu. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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