Structural factors must be recognised in correlation between ethnicity and occupation

Dear Editor,

After reading Ralph Ramkarran’s column in the Stabroek News (SN, June 10, 2018) which attempts to explain the ethnic distribution of GECOM’s staff, I attempted to challenge his claim that the apparent correlation of ethnicity and occupation in Guyana could be explained by the historical preferences of the various ethnic groups. Unfortunately, other pressing demands got in the way; and I decided to let the issue rest, comforting myself in the presumption that Ramkarran’s view in no way could be taken as representative of the popular position on the fuzzy (but consequential) correlation between ethnicity and occupation in Guyana. Interestingly, on the 14th of July, I read a news report on the News Room website which reported that no less a person than the Vice Chair-man of the Ethnic Relations Commission proffered an identical explanation for the said social problem. Below is an excerpt from the report:

“ERC Vice Chairman, Norman McLean added that in the case with the army, one cannot change the fact that there are more Afro-Guyanese soldiers as it is a choice. Similarly, with the case of businesses, predominately more Indo-Guyanese are entrepreneurs because of choice.” (Samaroo, Devina. “ERC to hire former investigators to probe ‘unfair hiring practices’ at GECOM”. June 14, 2018).

The excerpt shows that what was conveniently dismissed as an individual’s erroneous conceptualization of the social structure in Guyana is in fact an emerging, if not widely held, view. Whether emerging or widely held, the fact that this superficial and erroneous account is expressed by two persons who are opinion shapers by virtue of their respective positions in society warrants some public engagement with a view of contesting this veiled ethnic stereotype crafted and exploited in the colonial era but unfortunately still very much alive in 21st century Guyana. 

In opposition to the explanations offered by the two opinion shapers, I argue that the current fuzzy but socially consequential correlation between ethnicity on one hand and occupation, sectors, and industries on the other hand is best explained by three alternative factors: historical design, prevailing social structures, and political and material interests. Historical design explains the origin of the social phenomenon in question, prevailing social structures explain the outcome that the two gentlemen referred to as ‘choice’ and ‘preferences’ and political and material interest explain the persistence of this social fact.

With regards to the first factor, our history is replete with instances where direct actions were taken by the planter class and colonial officials to frustrate or to support whenever beneficial to their interests the movement in and out of specific sectors and industries by the various ethnic groups in Guyana. Direct actions were also taken by the various ethnic groups in reaction to the impositions of the planters and the colonial officials. The needs of the plantation system, the interest of the colonial powers and the reaction of the various groups to these needs and interests resulted in the horizontal and vertical diffusion of the various groups in the specific sectors of the society (these have been highlighted by countless historians, sociologists, economists, and political scientists to the extent that it is baffling that anyone would ignore this volume of work and offer explanations outside of those which are backed by substantial historical and scholarly evidence). This pattern, no doubt, persists in its essential form up to this day. This historical continuity, notwithstanding, it would be a major error to attribute this pattern to historical design exclusively, as if history is a social or political actor with the level of agency characteristic of social beings with high degrees of intentionality and transformative powers. A more fruitful approach would be to do three things: to assess the kinds of differential effects this inherited social structure have on the tendencies of the various ethnic groups to gravitate towards specific sectors and industries; to assess the social consequences of those tendencies; and to assess the political and material interests (and the ideological leanings) of the political leadership which maintains the structural configuration which induces those tendencies.  

As a consequence of these established structures, certain network effects, structurally induced and ethnic preferences and prejudices, and stereotypes prevail which act as barriers to entry determining the distribution of the various ethnic groups in the various sectors. Beset by these barriers, individuals understandably take the path of least resistance where occupation, survival and livelihood are concerned. It is, therefore, inappropriate to conclude that Indo-Guyanese prefer entrepreneurial activities and Afro-Guyanese prefer public service without considering these structural issues. Not only that it is inappropriate, but it is also downright dangerous as the path from the explanations given by the two gentlemen to the stereotypes extant in our society with regards to African Guyanese lacking business acumen and Indo-Guyanese lacking nationalist sentiments is a very short and much traversed path. 

These structurally induced tendencies have tremendous consequences for social cohesion in Guyana. There is an abundance of scholarly evidence that in societies in which race or ethnicity correlates with other structural divisions of either a horizontal (residential, occupational) or vertical (class and political power) form, social problems become more explosive than in societies in which there is a randomized distribution of racial and ethnic groups throughout these sectors and divisions. Moreover, the correlation with race or ethnicity and structural differentiation either of a horizontal or vertical form provides the structural opportunities for mobilisation along racial or ethnic lines; the manipulation of ethnic sentiments by political, cultural, and economic elites; the politicization of genuine concerns emerging from various ethnic communities; and the distribution of resources to ethnic groups under the guise of empowering certain sectors and communities. In a word, this maldistribution keeps ethnopolitics alive and remove the incentives for politicians to move beyond ethnic fear mongering in their political mobilisation strategies.  

The dismissal of these tendencies as choices or preferences, therefore, serves the ideological function of leaving intact a social structural configuration which benefits political, social and economic elites at the expense of the country at large.

Yours faithfully,

Duane Edwards

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