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Dismantling of the Black middle class

The 1960s saw real and explosive change in Bermuda. Given the international background, change abounded globally. In Africa, the Caribbean, and through civil rights and other movements in the United States, a potent environment was established.

E.F. Gordon warned of the dangers of party politics, and how they might divide the country on racial lines. He was right

On reflection, the rate of change in Bermuda did not allow for a well-reasoned, methodical examination of “stock in hand” with a charter for progress moving forward. Instead, the loudest voice or incipient rebel in too many cases became the pivot.

As always, most movements and ideas are inspired by students; in particular, university students. London would be a breeding ground for ideas of change and even revolution in the early 1960s. Many of the subsequent leaders in Africa and the Caribbean were fellows in colleges and universities in England at the same time. The idea of developing party politics as instruments was one such adoption stemming directly from that London fellowship.

The long-sought-after idea of voter inclusion had become an inevitability by the Sixties; the only question for Bermuda was when and how it was to happen. For the Black population, it meant having the right to participate; however, from the White oligarchical perspective, it would mean the loss of power and control over destiny, which to that point was firmly in their hands.

On the radical side of the emerging movement was the idea of liberation from colonial rule and the formation of power. In most countries such as Africa and some parts of the Caribbean, that meant a struggle to gain independence. The established Black Bermudian political elite, at that time, was more interested in a fair and equitable system than control or independence.

In fact, while the notion of party politics had been mooted, most of the politicians —including E.F. Gordon — warned the pundits about the dangers of travelling that route, fearing that it would unnecessarily divide the country, as they had witnessed in other places, particularly their own countries.

Bermuda had a majority-Black population that needed only the ability to vote to attain political power. They had an established merchant community with churches, lodges, sports clubs and all the rallying instruments, through which political cohesion could be achieved. Given the choices at the time, the more pragmatic idea did not need the apparatus of a political party; rather it needed cohesiveness with the existing organisations to develop national consensus.

A party, like a junta or paramilitary unit, would only develop its own narrow consensus, which invariably would not be in line with a national consensus. As an example, the country would not have had independence as an item; however, a party would.

Notwithstanding, the idea of a political party burst forward and in 1963, the first political party in Bermuda was formed under the name Progressive Labour Party. In life, just as in business, one has to consider what will be the likely competitive responses. Given the nature of Bermuda at the time, with the oligarchy, the issue was not just political, it was also economic.

Bermuda played a key role in the Cold War and, as an overarching factor, that meant any radical idea of the island tilting far Left was an illusion at best. That aside, the introduction of party politics with its known potential of narrow control was the single factor that caused the oligarchy, a narrow party of men, to devise a plan to destroy the economic potential of the entire Black community rather than allow a cabal not too dissimilar to themselves to gain the inevitable political power over the Black community.

Bermuda was run by White merchants — the bank and a few legal firms were the true kings of the land, and in that regard Sir Henry Tucker was the equivalent of "the Godfather. The Government was merely a tool in their hands. Their ultimate fear was not enfranchisement of the people; it was party control.

Fragments of the political ploy to destroy the emerging Black political movement began taking shape in 1965 with an orchestrated split that decapitated the merchant leadership from the PLP, leaving what would otherwise have been only a fringe element as the new core PLP leadership.

Lois Browne-Evans would rise as a result of that split. Along with her rise and the split was the new slogan “This is a labour party”, which in essence negated the combined societal elements up to that point. It also unwittingly left the power dynamics of the PLP more in control of parishes such as Devonshire and Pembroke.

Economically and socially strong areas such as Warwick and Southampton, including many of the eastern parishes, gave collateral strength to the PLP but were functionally neutered by internal party processes. This situation also underscored the cultural split between the new emerging West Indian community that was predominant in the central parishes and the native Black Bermudians predominant in the countryside.

The resulting political divide created an odd but inescapable choice for the Black merchant Bermudian. The United Bermuda Party was quickly formed with the promise of a new day for everyone on the basis of racial unity.

Recalling the words of one of the principals of the Theatre Boycott and a Young Progressive supporter at the time, Stanley Ratteray, who after a meeting with Sir Henry Tucker, proclaimed to his first cousin: “The whole world has changed.”

His comments were indicative of a genuine belief that things were going to change and that the White establishment was going to embrace the Black community in a new alliance of political unity. His words would be the echo of many aspiring Blacks, who, while apprehensive about the genuineness of the White establishment, were willing to trust the offer because they were longing for a new day and new conversation.

There was a genuine belief by many and hope at the very least at that time. The choice was simple: either they embrace a new alliance with the White community or the radical kind of division offered at the time by the PLP, which, with an anti-capitalist, pro-socialist ideology, favoured nationalisation and excluded the merchant class as gradualist and other names unfit for publication.

However, the reality was that this new Black/White political alliance was in reality not an embrace of two partners as in a joint venture. It was the case of the oligarchy saying in essence, “welcome to my world on my terms, and you should all be happy to have the privilege to be our partners”.

The new deal proved as an empty political handshake that went no farther than guaranteeing Black political support but no corresponding economic partnerships or benefit, which was only too soon discovered. The early formation and quick destruction of the “Black caucus” saw the political career of one of its prominent members, Arnold Francis, abruptly terminated because he was seen as the leader.

On the commercial level, the economic ostracism took on its own dynamics as credit was squeezed on many Black businesses deliberately by the financial institutions and simultaneously provided to the Portuguese. It did not help that labour tarnished Black businesses and it happened that during riots many of these Black businesses went up in smoke — uninsured, never to return.

The Portuguese community rose through this conundrum, credit was squeezed on the Black merchant, and unionism was taking form against the hotels and hospitality industries, which reduced unionised employment and gave rise to foreign and Portuguese outsourcing. The Portuguese community benefited from the new demands for menial jobs, filling every area, whether it was pot washer or lobby cleaner. As the union persisted in restricting areas of unionised work, it opened the door for new companies employing hundreds of workers. They were winning battles but losing the war unbeknown.

It took just two short decades to eliminate the existing Black merchant business and, by attrition, the middle-class buoyed by Black tradesmen, many of whom were apprenticed in the early 1950s and 1960s, and had by the 1990s come to the end of their dominance of local trade. The lack of local tradesmen caused a radical shift in building construction. To compound matters, an unfortunate incident within the banks in the early 1990s, involving a huge case of suspected fraud, resulted in the banks cold-heartedly penalising and eliminating many contractors, primarily Black, which assisted in the new look of the Bermudian construction landscape minus Black contractors.

The 1998 victory of the PLP was indeed the end of a failed political exercise called the UBP. It was not a matter of them not having genuine support; the core intent was seen as improper. The times were calling for a truer diversity and not an old model based on integration.

Unfortunately, this became a simple victory for the PLP, which had been in waiting for 35 years. The need for a truer diversity gave way to “it’s my turn now” and the continuation rather than the end of race politics. The continued marginalisation of the former Black merchant community persisted, and Portuguese contract workers were preferred. Aside from political power, no social or economic momentum of any significance occurred from within the Black community.

The reverse of upward mobility occurred, Black businesses failed at greater rates and violence within the community grew, as education seemingly continued its downward spiral. This issue was the making of a socioeconomic breakdown, not political, which saw the near complete collapse of the Black middle class.

One of the by-products of a healthy society is the grooming and role-modelling it offers to the young and vulnerable. The greatest example of this is the Portuguese community, which can now take care of its wayward and downtrodden, unlike the days of old.

The aims of the 1960s move by the oligarchy to dismantle the potential growth of the native Black were accomplished but the end result has left Bermuda at a crossroads with a struggle for a unifying identity, particularly when the first 300 years were based on codependency.

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Published April 23, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated April 22, 2021 at 6:52 pm)

Dismantling of the Black middle class

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