Jamaica's pervasive class problem


Jamaica's pervasive class problem


Thursday, November 07, 2019

Print this page Email A Friend!

Jamaica's foremost political sociologist, the late Professor Carl Stone, was renowned for many things, including his Marxist-influenced research and writings that provided one key method via which one could try to understand the development of Jamaica's political culture, particularly in the post-Independence era.

He was also renowned for his skill in accurately predicting the outcome of several general elections during that time. For me, one of his greatest legacies was his comprehensive overview of Jamaica's class system and structure at that time (the late 1970s to the early 1980s).

To date, no one has done any further work on the make-up of the class and status groupings that define the social structure of Jamaica. But classism is alive and well in Jamaica.

I am raising this discussion most deliberately because of two factors — the social ire and condemnation at the recent killing of national footballer Tarania “Plum Plum” Clarke by another young woman, reportedly during a fight over a cellular phone.

Somehow, Tarania's consummate skill, prowess and professionalism, on behalf of both her community and the nation, did not translate into significant upward social mobility for her and her family that could have removed her out of the path of that fatal entanglement.

This is the reality for many poor, working-class and inner-city Jamaican youth. National recognition and celebration is often unmatched by any significant resources that engender any real movement up the class and status structures of Jamaica.

I recall one national footballer who was famous in my community – back then he couldn't even find bus fare to come to Kingston to play in his matches at the National Stadium. He eventually migrated.

The second reason I am raising this discussion is that at the end of my lecture on social class this week one of my undergraduate students came up to me and said, “Prof, you just told my whole life story there.”

I will not repeat what she told me about her experiences at high school, but, after she left the room, I shed a few tears. I remember so clearly walking many similar pathways as a child of rural poverty.

We have come very far, but we have some ways to go. When a discussion is raised about class or classist behaviours in Jamaica it is commonplace for the discussion to be encouraged in several directions.

First, there is the strong insistence that it is not about class; it is a race issue. This is then followed up with stories about how someone's darker skin colour was the rationale for bad treatment at some establishment or other, or how someone was denied an opportunity at a job or scholarship or promotion because of their darker shade.

Then, there is the obligatory discussion that goes back to colonialism and slavery, sometimes taking you on a reverse journey through the Middle Passage and back to Africa.

You are reminded of the wickedness of “white people” and their descendants, everyone is happy and the Jamaican situation remains intact.

Or, the second mechanism when class is on the front burner is to direct the conversation towards the “problems” in the USA. A great deal of intellectual energy is consumed and trailer-loads of ire are levelled against President Donald Trump and the atrocities facing African Americans in the USA.

Jamaica, of course, doesn't have “those kinds of problems”. It's all good here. If the conversation gets too focused on Jamaica, there is always the useful cop-out — the real problem is not the classist structures that deny or limit opportunities to that large majority of Jamaicans who are positioned at the base of the socio-economic structure of the society.

No, it is the fault of the actual individuals themselves; they are poor, dispossessed, lacking in opportunities and such delights because they don't want them. Maybe they are lazy?

Comfortable in their situation of lack? If that fails, dancehall is the final go-to. Dancehall — which continues to emanate like steam from the crucible within which the most dispossessed mass of Jamaicans have existed since the turn of the socially harsh, politically explosive, and economically turbulent 1980s — reflects, reinforces, and celebrates the often necessary way of life of many very ordinary and often very poor Jamaicans.

Here, at the base of Jamaica's rigid and very tightly bound class structure, many who have been left out of the “sharing-up of the pie” find a way to make meaning of, revalue and sometimes break out of their straitened situations. They must “tun dem han' mek fashion”.

These “dancehall people” become the root of all social ills. The chicken and the egg are in a constant revolving cycle. Order is restored, and, all is well. But all is not well.

Aside from the ad hoc discussions about Uptown and/vs Downtown, the most explicit signals of this class problem is articulated in how access is granted to social amenities and resources.

Jamaica's educational structures, particularly at the primary and secondary levels, are excellent locations where this is made visible. At these two levels, but even more so at the secondary level, the education system was and remains an excellent correlate with the operation of Jamaica's class system.

Traditional high schools, as they were called, were set up early to educate a specific subset of this nation – those who would be leaders in all areas (commerce, politics, education, security, etc).

Over more than two centuries this morphed into an additional subset variously labelled and usually stigmatised and stereotyped secondary, comprehensive, technical, and vocational schools with different mechanisms used to filter students into their appropriate schools – Common Entrance, Grade Nine Achievement Test, Technical Entrance exam, among others that over time morphed into the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), Primary Exit Profile (PEP), and so on.

Parents at all levels understand very clearly that some schools provide better opportunities for their children and go to great lengths to ensure that they get into one of these prized institutions.

The majority of the most prized schools are located in Kingston and St Andrew, but there are satellites dispersed across the entire country.

C Wright Mills' work Elite Theory explains that this kind of elite grouping is represented in these various satellites, where, regardless of geographical location or place of residence, individuals from elite groups share common behaviours and practices, and will congregate around common locations and organisations for their entertainment, vacation and education.

Mills wrote about the USA, but here in Jamaica this brand of elitism is also very visible.

Even with today's renaming of all schools at the secondary level to eradicate the dreaded stigma associated with those that were deemed inferior, the greatest percentage of students with the best passes in the Common Entrance, GSAT, PEP, or whatever it is called, are sent to the traditional and top-tier high schools.

The top graduates from the teacher's colleges gravitate towards these same schools. Parents who come from higher social classes, have more disposable income, have a job, or have higher levels of interest in their children's education are over-represented in these schools.

These schools also have better equipment and resources, and usually have stronger alumni associations which provide additional resources. The end result? A significantly higher probability of multiple and higher passes in the secondary exit examinations, along with hopes of a brighter future, or consummation of an already existing high status position.

It is no secret, then, why parents go into paroxysms of grief if their children “pass” for the 'wrong' schools. Woe is me! This cannot be! My precious child is not going to that school!

It is no small wonder that children also fall prey to depression at the horrifying thought that they have failed because they ended up at the “bad” or low class school that will kill their parents' hopes and dreams of their social mobility that is seemingly assured if their children attend the 'right' high school.

Something is still wrong here. This is a never-ending story. Jamaica's rigid class structures have grown organically with the forward movement of this society and continue to operate very deliberately in this paradise we call home.

Donna P Hope, PhD, is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or dqueen13@hotmail.com

Now you can read the Jamaica Observer ePaper anytime, anywhere. The Jamaica Observer ePaper is available to you at home or at work, and is the same edition as the printed copy available at http://bit.ly/epaper-login




1. We welcome reader comments on the top stories of the day. Some comments may be republished on the website or in the newspaper � email addresses will not be published.

2. Please understand that comments are moderated and it is not always possible to publish all that have been submitted. We will, however, try to publish comments that are representative of all received.

3. We ask that comments are civil and free of libellous or hateful material. Also please stick to the topic under discussion.

4. Please do not write in block capitals since this makes your comment hard to read.

5. Please don't use the comments to advertise. However, our advertising department can be more than accommodating if emailed: advertising@jamaicaobserver.com.

6. If readers wish to report offensive comments, suggest a correction or share a story then please email: community@jamaicaobserver.com.

7. Lastly, read our Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy

comments powered by Disqus



Today's Cartoon

Click image to view full size editorial cartoon