Leaders who Look Like Us – The Politics of Race

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Why do people feel more comfortable with people who look like them? Where politics is concerned, some believe that the electorate chooses their candidate based solely on what that person looks like.

While in homogenous societies that may mean the person is good looking, older/younger, or male/female, in societies such as ours the criteria is race. Believers would have us think that the candidate’s moral standing, record of community service and educational background mean less to the voter than the texture of their hair and the complexion of their skin. In Trinidad and Tobago, there can be no political discussion that excludes race, but to what extent do we let race determine the way we vote?

Recently, the politics of race became an internationally debated topic when Barack Obama ran for President of the United States. His campaign constantly referenced the fact that he was African-American (like his father and wife), but also Caucasian (mother) and ‘Other’ (Indonesian – stepfather and half-sister). It was felt that an increasingly multi-racial America would identify with Obama’s multi-ethnic experiences, and thus vote for him. To an extent the Republicans also relied on President Obama’s background hoping that it would frighten their conservative support base and others who were on the fence, but feared change. Again President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor became a political ‘hot potato’ because she was the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants who had made a few controversial rulings favouring minorities. Less was said about her competence, and more about how the Republicans would handle her nomination considering they were already losing support in the Hispanic community.

In 2010 it was our turn. On April 8th, 2010 Trinbagonians were unexpectedly thrown into election mode, and immediately tongues began to wag about how the Opposition would handle this ‘snap’ election. There was no way the predominantly East Indian UNC could beat the PNM in its then format; they needed help. The People’s Partnership took a different approach to the usual formula of Black candidates where mostly Blacks lived, Indian candidates where mostly Indians lived, and ‘Mixed’ persons in the marginals. The Partnership presented diverse candidates who had longstanding ties to the community, and who were respected in their fields for their intellect. Instead of constantly promoting one leader, the Partnership billboards, rallies and advertisements would show a group of leaders. Quite often you would see Persad-Bissessar, Jack, Mc Leod, Dookeran and Daaga sitting around the table in unity discussing that which is most important – the country’s business.

“Indians would have voted for Black candidates, Blacks would have voted for Indian candidates, and importantly in Diego Martin West both Blacks and Indians would have voted for a ‘White boy'”

What did the results show us? We voted based on the issues. Indians would have voted for Black candidates, Blacks would have voted for Indian candidates, and importantly in Diego Martin West both Blacks and Indians would have voted for a ‘White boy’. Cut it anyway you like Rocky Garcia would have had to have garnered massive support from persons who looked nothing like him in order to be only 755 votes from victory over Diego’s beloved Dr. Rowley. So too with the Member of Parliament for Chaguanas East, a ‘Spanish’/’Trini White’ who may not have entered politics at all had it not been for the heinous murder of his Black employee, which he could not get past. Mr. Cadiz successfully faced the polls in a marginal constituency formerly held by the PNM and won by 4,080 votes. In the East, an East Indian candidate comfortably won the La Horquetta/Talparo seat, which means that the predominantly Black neighbourhood of La Horquetta lent him their support. Not to mention the Partnership’s weapon of mass destruction; Mr. Jack Austin Warner, a Black candidate in a predominantly East Indian constituency. As a candidate, Mr. Warner recorded the most votes of the entire election, a whopping 18,767.

And what of our choice for political leader? Despite each party’s attempt at presenting a mixed cast of candidates, the political leaders were quite clearly Black and Indian. Trinbagonians chose the latter. Although many votes came from the heartland, and other UNC strongholds, there were thousands of voters who were non East Indian and voted for non East Indian Partnership candidates, knowing that the leader of the Partnership is East Indian. This was because Patrick Manning’s actions caused people to think beyond race. Mr. Manning’s strange and inexplicable behaviour, his dictatorial tendencies, his unwavering arrogance and his unfortunate link to the questionable Calder Hart alienated Trinbagonians regardless of their ethnicity, religion or political affiliation. The people were concerned about the PNM’s inability to control its political leader, and were moved by the Partnership’s promise of coalition, consultation and change.

“I voted last week based on crime, corruption, health and traffic and not based on the complexion of Karen Nunez-Tesheira’s skin or the texture of Anil Robert’s hair”

Politically, I consider myself to be an Independent. I vote in accordance with what I believe is best for my country and I am certain that over the course of my life this will change as alliances and personalities do. What is important is that I consider the issues. I follow the political rallies. I listen to the social activists and the political analysts. I read the manifestos cover to cover, and I research my candidates. Most of all, like many in the East/West corridor, I voted last week based on crime, corruption, health and traffic and not based on the complexion of Karen Nunez-Tesheira’s skin or the texture of Anil Robert’s hair. I did not vote out of fear of being persecuted by persons in power who did not look like me nor was I swayed by the racial fictions surrounding supporting one party over the other.

Fact – we live in a country with a mixed population. Fact – we live in a country with a highly educated population. Fact – we confidently slew the ‘divide and rule’ giant. It is now time to focus on the task at hand, namely continuing to build the nation and healing from the brutality of a hard-fought election. In the words of our nation’s first female Prime Minister, “…let this be a defining moment in our nation’s life, a time of personal commitment as we all, you and I, begin the work anew towards the change we all need, to build a better country for our children and their children”. The politics of race belongs in the same dustbin as the politics of fear, exclusion and diversion. Hopefully, we have placed it there for good!

* I have deliberately used the word Black instead of Afro-Trinidadian because I believe that word truly represents persons of African descent in this country since they are quite mixed and cannot properly be called African.


Gabrielle Gellineau is an Attorney-at-Law and Trade Consultant who loves to communicate via words, written and spoken. She can be contacted at caribbeanfutures@gmail.com. You can also check out her blogs www.carifuture.blogspot.com and www.geevoice.wordpress.com.


  1. Kim

    May 31, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    a thought provoking article. you raised a couple points which beg the question is politics of race ‘really’ dead in Trinidad and why should it be dead?

    i think race would always be a relevant aspect of our society and is increasingly one in other societies as our world becomes more heterogeneous. indeed it is one of the paradoxes of our present reality. while we are more liberal and welcoming of ‘others’ there would be instances where we would still cling to ‘us’. in fact i believe the use of other leaders and particular images in the electoral campaign of the People’s Partnership shows their appreciation of this reality. their slate offered someone that each voter could identify with. in my mind this strategy wasn’t a flaw.

    i think that the ‘politics of race’ is a reality evident by the advertisements we see in our daily newspapers which show smiling faces from across the race spectrum. i think that that the ‘politics of race’ played in a bigger context in 2010. the run-up to this election presented a myriad of issues which were deemed by the electorate as more important than the race aspect and as such the ‘politics of race’ took a back seat but a seat in the car nonetheless.
    i think we should recognize the influence of the ‘politics of race’ in the human psyche but not allow it to be our only decision driver.

  2. Zakiya Smart

    June 1, 2010 at 4:12 am

    This is a really good article. I agree with your viewpoint. I am very proud that we in Trinidad have voted on the issues at hand, instead of race and actually made a decision to do what is in the “best interests” for the country.

  3. Taran Rampersad

    June 1, 2010 at 6:13 am

    I think there is a bit of a broad brush here. The campaign, in reality, was not necessarily constituency issues but national issues – and as such a lot of people didn’t vote for the needs of their constituency as much as the perceived needs of the nation.

    The PP played the ‘everyone be quiet and tell people to vote for Kamla’ card while the PNM seemed to be split between ‘vote for Manning’ and ‘vote for PNM’.

    So – at the constituency level – a lot was ignored. People I have spoken with in the Fyzabad constituency, as an example, rathered Primus to Sharma based on positive activity in the community (including people of East Indian descent)- but they didn’t want Manning back. So Primus may well have lost simply because Manning couldn’t compete with Kamla on the national issues.

    So… in spirit I agree. But at the constituency level, I don’t think constituency issues were really the basis for the votes as much as national issues. Whether that works out for the betterment of the constituencies is something that has yet to be determined – tall boots and dangling earrings be damned. :-)

  4. Gabby

    June 1, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Thanks for the comments. Issues involving race will always bring out differing views and of course there is no one answer to why people voted as they did. Its good to hear all the different perspectives though. All part of the democratic process. I remain optimistic though that the politics of race is on the backburner if not dead for good.

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