PLP taken to task on race and leadership

  • Commentator: Eva Hodgson

    Commentator: Eva Hodgson

The Progressive Labour Party's new leadership has been harshly criticised for its handling of race by social justice advocate Eva Hodgson.

In an op-ed piece published in today’s newspaper, Dr Hodgson criticises new PLP leader Marc Bean and his champion Marc Daniels for disrespecting the older generation of the party, and failing to acknowledge the efforts of its former leaders.

She argues that the party had failed to take a leadership position on race since its inception.

The opinion, which can be read in full on page four, was sent to several PLP MPs, as well as newly appointed Senator Marc Daniels, and former Premier Ewart Brown for their reaction.

Sen Daniels had urged the party to select a leader from among the younger Members of Parliament. But, according to Dr Hodgson, Sen Daniels’ campaign “encouraged disrespect and even contempt” for the party’s older members.

Sen Daniels refused to be drawn into the discussion when contacted on Friday. “It is not for me to attempt to offer rebuttal or criticism in this instance as I respect her voice under freedom of speech,” said Sen Daniels in an e-mail.

Immediately after being elected leader of the PLP, Mr Bean indicated to the media that the party would “evolve the narrative” on race under his leadership.

“We have to evolve the narrative. Race right now is somewhat in a box. It’s victim and oppressor — that’s the perception. In the end, we’re all Bermudians,” he said.

“And so before we start to point fingers at those who we consider to be racists, we have to first look at ourselves and prepare ourselves to do for self.”

“Racist attitudes” he continued, “are best ignored and the focus should be on the higher and finer things that connect us as a people.”

Asked to elaborate Mr Bean said: “The narrative on race that has permeated Bermuda for the last several decades, we’re going to take the lead and take that narrative to a higher level.

“There’s no need for racists in this country there’s no need for race baiting in this country. I think a man respects you when you respect yourself.

“It’s better to compete and cooperate than complain. So that’s going to be our focus, going forward.

“We’re not going to be pointing fingers at people and playing the victim as if someone else is our oppressors.”

The sentiments were warmly received by many in the community, including One Bermuda Alliance supporters.

But they raised eyebrows in some circles.

Dr Hodgson argues that Mr Bean ignores the fact that the party had from inception declined to tackle structural racism head on.

She criticises Mr Bean for giving “solace to those bloggers and supporters of the OBA who charged the PLP with ‘playing the race card’ and thereby being responsible for Bermuda’s racial divide.” And, says Dr Hodgson, Mr Bean’s remarks betrayed “an amazing lack of knowledge of the history of the Party that he is now about to lead.”

PLP MPs contacted for their reaction included Mr Bean, his Deputy Leader Derrick Burgess, Walter Roban and Zane DeSilva but they did not respond to our e-mailed requests for comment.

We were unable to contact former Party leader Paula Cox.

Political commentator Walton Brown, who won election to parliament for the first time on December 17, said he did not think it appropriate for him to participate publicly in a discussion on the black community’s response to racism or to respond to criticism about the PLP leadership in a public forum.

The PLP said through a spokesperson that it would not offer any comment.

“It has been my policy to avoid public criticism of my party’s leadership,” said former Premier and PLP Leader Ewart Brown.

“As long as I have the option of speaking as a former leader of the Progressive Labour Party, inside the Party, my policy will remain unchanged.”

He congratulated Mr Bean for his ascension to the leadership and wished him well.

Dr Brown said he agreed with Dr Hodgson that “race/racism will not evaporate because someone wishes to ‘turn down the dial’ or ‘reduce the temperature’ on racial discussions.

“In fact, the constant call for colour-blindness as the best option for anyone borders on the infantile.

“I was always taught that blindness was a medical disability.”

But Dr Hodgson was wrong in stating that he did nothing about race when he was Premier.

“It is highly unlikely that I could have evoked such highly charged reactions (inside and outside of my Party!) had I been a ‘do nothing’ Premier.”

Dr Hodgson contacted this newspaper over the weekend to correct her view on the former Premier’s efforts on race. She said that renaming the airport, and several schools to publicly recognise facets of Bermudian history and the role played by black Bermudians, as well as erecting the Sally Bassett statue, all of which took place under Dr Brown’s tenure, were of “psychological significance in the face of our history being so completely ignored and our contribution and even our very existence being demeaned.”

Jonathan Starling, a former PLP member who ran as an independent candidate in the general election said he broadly agreed with Dr Hodgson, but found her attack on Mr Bean “rather mean-spirited” and personal.

“I agree with her, in broad terms, that the PLP has, for the bulk of its existence, not explicitly addressed structural racism in Bermuda,” said Mr Starling.

“To be sure, the occasional Party figure has spoken on this topic, and many Party figures no doubt do consider structural racism a problem in Bermuda, but they have not necessarily oriented the PLP to address it head on.

“They have, despite the protestations of many White Bermudians, actually bent over backwards in many ways (as Dr Hodgson notes) to be seen as a colour-blind labour party in the fashion of the UK Labour Party.”

The PLP had historically made the “strategic mistake” by seeking “to play up the class angle more than the race angle in Bermuda,” he continued.

“The Black Beret Cadre, and other similar groups, did fill that void to a degree. Personally, I don't see how any social democratic or democratic socialist group in Bermuda could realistically develop a platform which failed to acknowledge the reality of structural racism in Bermuda, and develop their strategy accordingly, and I think the failure of the PLP to explicitly really address this (especially when the reality of structural racism was much more obvious in past decades) is a grave historical error on the part of the PLP.”

Mr Starling added: “[Mr Bean’s] comments can — and I think already have — been seized by white Bermudians to repudiate the perceived use of the 'race card' by the PLP in recent years (mostly relating to Dr Brown's tenure), and will be used as a beating stick against any (such as Dr Hodgson in this instance, but also NGOs such as CURB) who 'dare' to name and challenge structural racism in Bermuda.”

But Mr Starling said it is still too early to say in which direction, ideologically Mr Bean will take the PLP.

“He seems to be acknowledging the reality of structural racism but advocating the best strategy to overcome it is to ignore it and instead to focus on black enterprise, black capitalism and black social reconstruction, rather than challenging the system itself.”

That, contends Mr Starling, is a “policy of appeasement and accommodation to structural racism” and could be seen as a retrograde position compared to the PLP’s historical “non-racial Labourist approach” criticised by Dr Hodgson.

“While I believe Mr Bean to be quite progressive on social issues, I worry that he is adopting a very neo-liberal economic approach, albeit one focused on black capitalism.”

But Mr Bean appeared to be building on Dr Brown’s approach to dealing with race, Mr Starling continued.

“Dr Brown's 'Big Conversation' and comments on race were more cynical than progressive, and I saw Dr Brown's main ideological position as being very much in line with a black capitalist direction, and using 'racial discourse' more to consolidate a foundation for black capitalism than to challenge structural racism in Bermuda. So, in that sense, I would see Mr Bean's comments as more a maturation of the direction that Dr Brown was steering the party.”

Neither of Bermuda’s two political parties challenge structural racism, Mr Starling concluded.

“We have one party largely supported by white Bermuda which benefits from structural racism,” he said.

“And we have another party which historically danced around the issue of structural racism (rather than address it head on) and is now apparently adopting a policy of accommodating to structural racism and focusing on protecting and expanding the existing black upper class within the confines of the existing system.”

Mr Bean has made little public mention of institutional or structural racism since he entered public life two years ago.

But in 2010, as a government Senator, he acknowledged that his party had inherited “economic inequity” and “institutional racism”.

The comments were made as part of an apology for criticising his own party’s efforts in education.

“'Upon reflection I recognise that my words may have created discomfort among the hardworking men and women in this Government who since 1998 have striven to overcome the failed education system, the economic inequity and the institutional racism that we inherited from the former government,” Mr Bean said.

l Read Dr Hodgson’s full opinion article on Page 4.

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Published Dec 31, 2012 at 8:00 am (Updated Dec 30, 2012 at 10:44 pm)

PLP taken to task on race and leadership

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