Equal rights...and justice
It is reported that an Easter message along with testimony from the grave was sent to Prime Minister Andrew Holness and the Cabinet. Jesus was asked to deliver the message when he arrived in Jamaica for Easter Sunday services. It read, “I died and was buried in the grave by colonial Jamaica, but I awaited the resurrection call to bring me back. I shook in hope at Independence, thinking they would have brought me forth to help build and bring joy and fulfilment to the excited citizens, but the call never came.
“I stirred again when I thought I heard a call from Manley in the 70s. I waited for the sure call, but it never came. Since then, in anticipation I took off the grave clothes and have been dressed and waiting, but nobody nuh call mi and mi cyaan come out if nobody nuh say ‘Come forth!’ ”
“Do, Missa PM and yuh Parliament, nuh make another Easter pass me!
“Your servant for justice,
“Donkey say worl’ nuh level.” We accept this Jamaican proverb as a truism; a valid description of the way things are. However, we don’t often see it as the statement of a national problem. But it is a powerful description of the inequalities that are a daily part of our landscape. The fact of inequality is not in question, but we rarely acknowledge it as a root problem of some of the critical issues that we face.
The disparity, inequality and inequity that prevail in almost every area of our society form the bed of hopelessness, emptiness, low self-esteem, and feelings of abandonment felt by the majority of our citizens. The rise in crime and violence is testimony to this reality.
In our society the majority of people live on the margins or are struggling to survive while a small percentage live in opulence. Some benefit from access to the best schools, health care, higher education, scarce job opportunities, justice in the courts, protection by the police, and the support of the State apparatus. Others do not. This is inequality in evidence.
We must face the reality that the societal construct of haves and have-nots, classism, and other inequalities that drove us to seek Independence remains with us after 54 years. But if we desire to fulfil our motto, ‘Out of many, one people’, and to have a peaceful, stable and just society, then the sixth pillar of the nine pillars I am suggesting as essential must be the twin pillars of equality and equity.
The Oxford Dictionary defines equality as “the state of being equal, especially in status, rights or opportunities’. Equity is defined as “the quality of being fair and impartial”.
A country that has equality and equity will see all its citizens being of equal status and having the same rights and opportunities, and its decision-making and treatment of citizens will be manifestly fair and impartial. Based on the principle that all men are created equal before God, they should be treated as such and given equal opportunity to rise to their highest potential. We must ensure that the construct of the society is not placing roadblocks in the path of some to favour the few, or favouring one group above another.
Even a cursory examination of the systems and structures in operation in Jamaica will reveal a vastly unequal availability of opportunities. The constitution guarantees the same rights to all, but do all Jamaicans experience the same treatment at the hands of the State?
Why should I care?
If we want to become a truly prosperous society we must recognise that human capital is one of our richest resources. A country that only allows for a relatively small portion of its human capital to be properly developed is destined to remain poor. We hear a lot of talk about freeing up the capital in land by ensuring that people have legal titles, which is good and right, but what about unleashing the tremendous human capital that is trapped in many of our people by poor schooling and lack of opportunity, or our low view of their potential and purpose in life because of their address or the school they attended?
How we treat people reflects what we believe about their value. Our society does not treat people as though they are valuable. If we maintain a society in which large numbers of the population do not have the opportunity to fully develop themselves, we will be constantly losing the benefit of their economic and other worth.
We have been content to allow our people to go abroad and find development opportunities in other lands and send home remittances. However, the value that these people produce in foreign lands is largely spent in those lands. What is sent as remittances is necessarily a small portion of the value that they are producing.
We are now trying to achieve peace and stability, five per cent growth in four years, along with First-World standards in everything, but we continue to ignore the root causes of the failures. We are attempting to build a superstructure without first laying the proper foundation.
We desire order and stability in the country but fail to recognise a simple truth from physics. Stability is produced by homogeneity. We cannot perpetually be loading one side of the scale and somehow expect stability to result. We desire a certain level of self-control and values and attitudes to be displayed by the nation’s people, but we don’t provide the environment needed to produce the results.
Inequality inevitably leads to strife. Peter Tosh sang, “Everyone is crying out for peace/ No-one is crying out for justice/ We want equal rights and justice...”
The demand for equal rights and justice remains a consistent cry of the people. The trouble is that we maintain the same systems and structures that created the divisions and now help to keep them alive.
From a very young age, children are able to recognise inequality and inequity. They say, “That’s not fair!” People get angry at unfairness. It is a dangerous situation when the majority of citizens have no expectation of fairness from the systems in place.
The expectation of Independence was that equality would come at last. We thought we would throw off the discrimination and inequalities handed out by our colonial masters and develop a Jamaica for Jamaicans. But the hoped-for equality did not come Â— at least not in large measure. The only thing that has really changed is the players at the top. The thinking is still the same.
Could it be that we are blind to the fact that our society is still structured to ensure that the poor and uneducated remain poor and uneducated? Or, could it be that we prefer to hold on to power by keeping the majority under control by denying them the opportunity to be properly educated, by keeping them so focused on the need for daily survival that they don’t have the time to consider the issues of systemic inequality?
Ghettos are controlling structures, squatter settlements are controlling structures, tribal politics is a controlling structure, poor schools are controlling structures. The problem is not money, it is lack of commitment to equality and equity.
Education is key
No society is better than how it is educated. I strongly contend that at the heart of our nation’s social and economic problems is educational inequality both in terms of availability and quality. Because education is one of the greatest short-term equalisers, focus should be given to moving all public schools to equal quality across the nation.
Equal-quality education, rooted in applied values for character development, should be provided to all. This is certainly another area where the church — the voice of conscience for the society and the mouthpiece of God in the pursuit of justice — has been silent for decades. The church of pre-independent Jamaica that championed the cause against slavery and its effects, the cause of education for the poor, thus laying a good foundation for modern Jamaica, has since fallen asleep on the job.
What creates a level playing field?
We must level the field by utilising the education system to grant access to channels for developing personal potential, and correctly teaching and applying faith, because what you believe (about self, others, society) affects our thinking and ultimately our behaviour.
Equality and equity for all should inform policy and guide practice. It is always going to be difficult to establish and ensure equality without societal commitment to the value of each citizen. Government in a developing nation must be unequivocally committed as a priority to creating a level playing field that guarantees equal rights and opportunity for all its citizens to develop to their highest potential. Social harmony depends on it. Citizens must equally understand that with rights and opportunities comes responsibility. Each has a responsibility to contribute to the development and maintenance of the society which afforded him the opportunity.
The success of Government should not be judged primarily on programme implementation, but on the improvement of the quality of life for the majority of its citizens and its ability to produce peace, justice, order and an effective social infrastructure.
Rev Al Miller is pastor of Fellowship Tabernacle. Send comments to the Observer or