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“What I think is of concern is that the problem is no longer back of town. You’re dealing with an element that knows no boundaries.”— Paul King (Robin Hood owner)

“Bermuda still suffers from too many dysfunctional families. It must provide support to at-risk young people and their parents. This would prevent people from joining gangs and not only avoid horrific tragedies such as the Robin Hood shootings, but reduce youth unemployment and the general atmosphere of hopelessness that afflicts too many young people today.”

— Royal Gazette editorial

So was Paul King saying that if the mayhem, violence and death that was meted out on a casual basis at the Robin Hood a fortnight ago, resulting in the horrific murders of two young Black men, was contained to the precincts of Court Street, Middle Town Road, Broom Street up in Somerset or Horseshoe Road in Southampton it would be far more tolerable?

Out of sight out of mind, perhaps? That if they knew their boundaries or, as we like to say in Bermuda, that if they knew their place — they being the so-called Black gang members — that he and countless others who inhabit the other Bermuda who are overwhelmingly White, I might add, could continue to live their lives insulated from the reality of what has become of Bermuda’s Black working-class communities up and down this island.

Was this worse than Sir John Swan’s “Black men are the problem” comment from three-plus decades ago? If not, it has in a dubious way earned the all-time No 2 spot.

To add insult to injury, the patronising Gazette editorial states that Bermuda has too many dysfunctional families. Of course, the editorial elides that the exclusive reference here is to Black families and young Black men. And, if one accepts that all the families referenced are Black, which is made quite clear, what does that say about Bermuda’s White families and young White males.

Let me say this, I gave an interview to this newspaper through reporter Jonathan Bell, which was printed last week and which reflected an analysis of the problem around this issue. Included were the types of public policies that were required to fundamentally change the two decades-plus trajectory of this destructive trend that is now multigenerational. To my surprise the Gazette omitted them. What amounted to no more than two to three sentences. Those recommendations also virtually mirrored those submitted by the Social Justice Group.

On the other hand, the social justice group did echo my call for us to address the underlying causation — and included the types of policies at a minimum that are indispensable. I was appreciative of them for doing so.

Fundamentally, what is driving these horrific outcomes since the turn of this century has been the extraordinarily high levels of income inequality that Bermuda has endured and its impact on those at the bottom of income distribution on the island, who have been overwhelmingly its Black residents because of pre-existing racial disparities around employment, wages and social mobility at the very least. For the Black working poor, their neighbourhoods and households up and down Bermuda, this has been devastating.

It was the work of former Bank of Bermuda economist Robert Stubbs that opened my eyes to the levels of income inequality that began to grow fairy robustly at the beginning of the 21st century. His findings would later find their way to this paper and helped to inform my deliberations around the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on the Living Wage.

What was really intriguing was how he demonstrated how the impacts of that rise in income inequality was showing the same destructive impacts seen in other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development as it relates to homicides. Later, research by me would also reveal its link to gang formation, violence and the decline in social mobility.

Moreover, income inequality at these levels has its most destructive impact on those at the bottom of income distribution. That is why the only really sustainable and effective response, as the research confirms, is to put in place public policies designed to produce more equitable outcomes for those in these lower income groups — overwhelmingly Black Bermudians in our case — through redistributive policies.

Here are the types of public policies I proposed last week:

• Tax restructuring to provide more equity in the system by removing the tax burden off of the backs of the working poor who are predominately Black in Bermuda by ensuring the wealthy corporations — particularly in international business and Bermuda companies such as Belco and its parent company, along with Colonial and Dunkley’s — pay their fair share.

• A living wage

• A root-and-branch restructuring of our health system with the implementation of a model based upon some variation of a single-payer system in order to produce universal access

• A legislated affirmative-action framework to ensure racial diversity and inclusion throughout our economy for both qualified Black Bermudians and Black-owned companies as it relates to government contracts with respect to procurement and capital projects. To think that after two decades of Progressive Labour Party government, that has still not been achieved boggles the mind, actually. If we really want to place race behind us, its starts here by putting in place the necessary race-based remedies to accomplish that. This is how we begin to close that sordid chapter

• A proper unemployment insurance scheme

And the chief culprit of the rise in income inequalities in Bermuda? Hands down, in my view, has been the massive growth of the international business/financial services sector over the same period. In a previous piece, I outlined how on its own insurance industry website, the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers brags that a full 62 per cent of all economic activity in Bermuda is derived from its sector. Additionally, 42 per cent of all payroll tax revenues is derived from 18 or so companies in that insurance-dominant sector.

International business is the most lucrative sector of this economy, yet one where Blacks are a distinct minority. Has that sector brought major economic benefits to Bermuda? Of course, it has. But we cannot ignore that it has also brought with it serious dislocations in its wake that have taken their toll in ways that are becoming clearer.

And if I am right, then clearly they are not paying enough in taxes by a long shot to mitigate these impacts.

I know that correlation is not causation, but if you look at the rise in gang formation in late 1990s through to the period between 2008 and 2010, two things were occurring: the massive growth of international business in Bermuda post 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, along with the massive outbreak of gang murders within a subgroup of young Black Bermudian men from low-income households who have been historically viewed as surplus to requirement.

Rolfe Commissiong was the Progressive Labour Party MP for Pembroke South East (Constituency 21) between December 2012 and August 2020, and the former chairman of the joint select committee considering the establishment of a living wage

There were other factors as well — two in particular — but the dominant one has been the phenomenal growth of international business during that period. And the destructive impacts from living in a country with high levels of income inequality as most global research shows:

• Gang formation

• Gang violence

• Increase in the number of capital crimes (murders)

• Increased levels of poverty (relative and real)

• Exacerbation of racial disparities, which have been growing across a range of employment, income and health categories, especially as it relates to Black males (a Bermuda variant)

• Decline in social mobility

• Growth of illicit economies

The other factors that have worked in tandem outlined by the growth of international business has been the race to the bottom on wages by the adoption of low-cost, low to medium-skilled foreign labour by Bermuda employers, which is why a living wage is critical and should have been implemented two to three years ago if not for our conservative premier, who, with the Wall Street banker (finance minister Curtis Dickinson), has now outsourced the restructuring of our economy to KPMG for likely what will be a king’s ransom.

Another factor has been the role of technological change and the loss of jobs, including in banking and international business over the past two decades as well.

But why have we seen these impacts emanating from only Bermuda’s Black low-income communities and households? After all, Black residents are only 56 per cent of the population. For me, the answer is staring at us in plain sight and one you may not expect. It’s because White residents on average in Bermuda possess higher levels of income and multigenerational wealth to, in effect, insulate themselves from the worst impacts of living in a country with such high levels of income inequality.

And that will remain the reality. As long as they stay in their place…

Suggested reading/sources:

World Economic Forum — Inequality and Crime by Hernan Winkler, Economist, Office of the Chief Economist for Europe and Central Asia World Bank.

The Finance Curse: How oversized financial centres attack democracy and corrupt economies by Nicholas Shaxson and John Christensen

The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson

Rolfe Commissiong was the Progressive Labour Party MP for Pembroke South East (Constituency 21) between December 2012 and August 2020, and the former chairman of the joint select committee considering the establishment of a living wage

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Published November 08, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated November 07, 2021 at 8:35 am)

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