By Raffique Shah
May 23, 2022
I have grown accustomed to watching a scene in front of me—teenage boys kicking what life there was in a long-expired football, others of similar age and background carrying on an animated discussion on a subject I could not determine from where I stood, and yet others glued to their communication devices, maybe “chatting” with friends, maybe conducting extensive research into issue—I don’t know.
Except for the locations, the demographics, they could be replicated anywhere in this country: small rural villages, bustling urban and suburban communities, liming spots at shopping centres—a feature that came long after my teenage years had expired. As I watched changes taking place, I often wondered of the values we tried to instil in the young people of our day, being proud of their ancestry, or, if I may be blunt, their colour of skin, which, I should add, before the emergence of Black Power induced shame, not pride, and not only among Afro-Trinis.
Indians will hardly admit there was rabid discrimination by colour codes in their communities. But it was there—a larger-than-life factor that determined the future of families, inheritance of businesses, even empires as some grew to be. Darker members of families often found themselves excluded from early-life education, from job opportunities, prejudice welded into the DNA of their parents, sometimes even their siblings.
This disease of the mind was not owned by Indians. It existed, too, among Afros—the not-so-inane chant “If you ’ent red, yuh dead” was driven by more than just alcohol and the spirit of Carnival. Let’s be brutally honest about a form of discrimination that ran through generations of Indians and Africans, and rather than fade or disappear with time, planted its roots firmly in the psyche of the population, so much so that there was shock when ingrained colour-coding was breached.
For example, there was a time when one expected the sales managers and most salesmen of certain commodities and services—vehicles, sewing machines, insurance policies, heavy construction equipment, to name the more obvious—to be sold by whites and off-whites, reds, Chinese and fair-skinned Indos. Even in households, especially large ones, the darker-skinned children found themselves to be of lower priority when it came to expenditure on education and training. Only when the dark shone so brightly that parents could not escape reality, the colour code cracked. When I look back at the aftermath of 1970—a full 50 years later—it is difficult to find the fruits of our thoughts that we expected change, not just the colour coding, but to replace it with meritocracy.
We were not stupid. We knew not everyone could succeed in academics. We knew, too, that some children suffered mental and other disorders that prevented them from absorbing academics and vocational education. Hence provisions had to be made to accommodate them so that they wouldn’t be left behind as we moved the Dream Democracy forward. For example, we saw huge cracks in the junior secondary and senior comprehensive system that Dr Eric Williams thrust upon the population as the answer to all our educational needs. These monstrosities, catering as they did for children ages 13 to 16, their most vulnerable period in terms of behaviour and discipline, saw the system crash, not unexpectedly.
The so-called prestige schools still catered for a few thousand who were properly colour-coded, if not mentally equipped, to move on to tertiary-level education. Those children from urban and rural Trinidad and Tobago who most needed education as a tool to serve them better in their future lives fell by the wayside. Vocational training, which always had huge possibilities in providing the nation with skilled personnel, also diminished, if not disappeared.
Entered the battle zones, huge compounds intended to educate, but now reduced to fornication and fights involving hormone-driven youngsters. Teachers ran for cover and safety, police could do little given their manpower, and the system fell apart without the fanfare with which it was ushered in a mere 25 years or so earlier. Billions of dollars had been wasted, with little or no uplifting of the quality and quantity of academics we produce. There were studies and papers and proposals aplenty. Experiments were conducted. Most of the schools reverted to five- and seven-year curricula. The dropout rates increased to a point where during the recent Covid crisis, hundreds of children disappeared from the roll. These youngsters might have been saved from a life of criminality, had governments addressed not just the curriculum but the colour-coding that now had class-coding and staff negativity which brought us to the disaster we are in today.
We have come full circle. True, many were successfully schooled, but many more failed. They are the ones who haunt us today.