WEDNESDAY, MAY 4: Bermuda’s crime wave and economic turmoil can be traced back to a failure to deal with economic disparity between the races.
Advocacy group CURB claims the recession and murder epidemic sweeping the island are disproportionately hurting the black community.
They believe it is time to revisit affirmative action legislation — like the Workforce Equity Act — to deal with the ongoing wealth gap between whites and blacks.
Inheritance tax, economic empowerment legislation for black-owned businesses and payroll tax and social insurance contributions linked to income should also be considered, the group suggests.
Lynne Winfield, past president of the anti-racism group and a current member of the Advocacy Working Group, said the failure to follow those early recommendations had led directly to the climate of chaos engulfing Bermuda today.
As early as 1977 - in the wake of rioting across the country - official reports were recommending ‘redistribution of the wealth’ as an essential element of bringing peace to the community.
Ms Winfield, who attended the annual White Privilege Conference in the US along with five other members of CURB last month, said Bermuda lagged behind the rest of the world in legislating equality.
She said Canada, US, UK and particularly South Africa had established laws and policies for ensuring racial equality in the workplace and contract tendering process.
“It is an enigma that in a 70 per cent black population we still have to do these things.
“It speaks to how embedded structural racism is in our society.
“For 350 years legislation and policies were passed to ensure one group of people stayed at the top and others at the bottom.
“If legislation created this economic disparity, then it may need legislation to create a fairer society.”
Racial inequality in Bermuda is starkly demonstrated in comparative levels of income, inherited wealth and incarceration rates throughout Bermuda.
Approximately 200 shootings in the past two years and 16 murders have exclusively involved the black community. And a new documentary — Poverty in Paradise — which premiered this weekend shows how the effects of the recession are adversely effecting single parent black families.
Cordell Riley, a member of the CURB Advocacy Working Group, said it was time for conversation in Bermuda to turn into action.
“I don’t think people in Bermuda are ready for it (affirmative action). I don’t think they were ready for it in the US but once they introduced the legislation people adapted.”
He said testing for an internationally led 2003 OECD survey showed that blacks and whites in Bermuda were on a par in terms of literacy.
“If that is the case why is there such a wide difference in terms of earnings?”
Ms Winfield believes the Workforce Equity Act, tabled in 2007 but shot down amid outcry from businesses before it reached the House, would have been a small step in the right direction.
“It didn’t have a lot of teeth to it but it would have got people thinking about the racial make-up of their businesses.”
It’s commonly accepted practice in other countries, she said, that the racial make-up of a business should attempt to reflect the racial make-up of the country.
She said there were simple steps that Bermuda could take such as ensuring every job was advertised along with the starting salary.
“Part of the problem is the networking that goes on within Bermuda.
“If white Bermudians disproportionately hold the top jobs in management positions then they are more able to find jobs for their friends.”
South Africa’s Black Economic Empowerment Act —introduced in 2003 to help redress the inequalities of Apartheid by providing opportunities for black-owned businesses — is another piece of legislation that CURB is scrutinizing.
Mr Riley believes the act could be Bermudianized to help lift small businesses and provide jobs.
He said: “That has happened on an ad-hoc basis but there is no clear policy where you can see the guidelines, what the benchmarks for success are and how we are improving.
“We have been afraid as a country to talk about what we are going to do for the black community.”
Labels like ‘black empowerment’ and ‘white privilege’ are uncomfortable for many.
The organizers of last month’s conference in Minneapolis, attended by Mr Riley, Ms Winfield, Michelle Dismont-Frazzoni, Hashim Estwick and Cindy Steede-Williams have been under pressure to change the title.
“That is something they have said they are not budging on,” said Ms Winfield.
The theory is that a level of discomfort is necessary to confront the race issue head-on — cloaking it in conciliatory language is not the goal.
“We don’t want to alienate people but when you are talking about something as emotional as race relations a degree of discomfort is inevitable.
“We need to get past the argument that ‘it wasn’t me’ and look at how we can fix this together.”