How black is black enough to govern St Lucia?

The following was first published in the Star August 30 2010. When Pierre fired at Chastanet, was he also thinking of another not-so-black leadership contender?


Philip J Pierre

Philip J Pierre is not the first local politician—and, regrettably, won’t be the last, count on it—to wake up one morning with his unmanicured size twelves stuck in his epiglottis. What makes his latest faux pas especially remarkable is that for the last several years Pierre’s public image had been synonymous with cautious reticence, as if indeed bitter experience had taught him to think, think, think before opening his mouth. If in consequence he came across to the headline-seeking press as boring, at least he avoided the media mauling synonymous with less careful politicians such as, say, Marcus Nicholas and George Odlum before him. It seemed Pierre had traveled a long way since publicly acknowledging the presence of “criminals in both parties” (during an over-heated 2006 pre-election exchange with What Makes You Mad host Andre Paul), not to mention his farcical attempts at equating his platform picong about Romanus Lansiquot’s kalson with some of Churchill’s more famous rejoinders.

As if his outing last Sunday of Allen Chastanet as the undeclared banner bearer of “the economic class” did not already say more about Pierre than was good for his carefully powdered public image, the East Castries MP followed up on Monday with an exchange with a BBC reporter that seemed to confirm the growing suspicion that arrogance might yet be a communicable disease. Asked to define “economic class,” Pierre replied: “The people who control the commanding heights of the economy!” He refused to comment on the ethnicity of the particular class but had much more to say about his Sunday afternoon sermon on Mount Ciceron on Wednesday, when he called Dave Samuel’s radio show, The Agenda, with STAR editor Nicole Mc Donald as the morning’s guest. Now Pierre seemed to be saying unnamed citizens were making more of his statement than was ever intended. So let us consider what the MP actually said, with reference to the next general elections, a year or so away, at best:

“It is probably the most important election in Saint Lucia because the economic class . . . they have decided that too many black young people are becoming educated and are controlling the political levers in their country. So, they have put their people in and their poster boy is Allen Chastanet . . . because that class, they have controlled the economy of this country for years and now they want to control the politics of the country . . . hence cometh Allen Chastanet.”

By all Pierre said during his near to fifteen minutes on The Agenda, his detractors were desperately seeking to recast his statement, if not himself, as racist. He never once talked about anyone being white, he insisted. All he had attempted to do was promote public discussion of an important issue that should not be swept under the carpet. As for the term “poster boy,” he said, that was just “young people’s language.”

Let’s break that down. In the first place, there is nothing en-vogue or “young people” about the current use of the poster boy discriptive. It has been in use for as long as printers have produced posters. But let us not rely on my hardly infallible word, let us instead consider the definition of “poster boy” by Collins Dictionary: “A person who typifies a particular characteristic, cause, opinion.” It can also describe a child afflicted by some disease or deformity whose picture is used on posters to raise money for charitable purposes. Example: the poster child for muscular dystrophy. So how does Chastanet become the poster boy of the class that Pierre says is secretly determined to take political power out of the hands of “young black people [who] are becoming educated and are controlling the political levers in their country?”

Who are the unidentified people that by Pierre’s account Chastanet represents and who, again according to Pierre, have always “controlled the commanding heights of the economy?” (The last time I heard that leftist cliché, the Berlin Wall was still intact and George Odlum was a radical force foolishly fulminating from the platforms of the still-born St. Lucia Labour Action Movement. Yes, I can hear the under-fifty set going, ‘St. Lucia What? Never heard of that!’)

What is it that has surprised Pierre? That public reaction to his comment has hardly been encouraging politically or that his most recent screed has earned him the burdensome tag “racist?”

Of course, it is not the first time a Labour Party frontliner has taken shots at Allen Chastanet’s ethnic make-up. Shortly after the 2006 general

elections that returned John Compton and the United Workers Party to office, the Labour Party’s failed candidate in Choiseul, Tennyson Joseph, published in the party’s newspaper a scathing diatribe entitled: “In the 21st Century Allen Chastanet should not be a Minister of Government.”

Once the chief speechwriter for Prime Minister Kenny Anthony (some of his more remarkable contributions appear with several unattributed Didacus Jules classics in The Rainbow’s Edge!), Joseph wrote: “There is a prevailing view that because the majority of our tourists come from Europe and North America, persons who look, speak, act and think European are best suited to run and manage our tourism industry. Sadly, the appointment of Allen Chastanet is the product of all these debilitating myths and evidence of a deep ideological obfuscation that suggests the absence of self confidence and the presence of self hate in those who support, promote and perpetuate such perspectives.”

Conceivably, the mixed-race offspring of Saint Lucian parents, who may look, speak, act and think like educated Europeans, Canadians, and Americans are unsuited for government in our enlightened age, by Tennyson Joseph’s yardstick, at any rate. Remarkably, even though at the time of publication Joseph’s article generated much public discussion, no representative of the Labour Party ever saw the need to contradict the Nazi sentiments expressed by an SLP poster boy—not even Kenny Anthony who shares with Allen Chastanet the same morphology. (Interesting to note, Chastanet’s forbears operated sea transportation regionally while Anthony’s paternal parents were plantation owners!)

On the eve of Chastanet’s recent launching as the UWP’s candidate for Soufriere, the Labour Party newspaper observed that Saint Lucia had come a long way since the days before adult suffrage, when only the rich and white had the opportunity to participate in the election process. Included was the following: “Allen Chastanet’s entry into elective politics is offensive and dangerous to our democratic institutions.” At least, the paper didn’t say Chastanet represented “a most frightening prospect!”

But back to Pierre: It is clear he sees no need to recant. He stands by what he said on Sunday that came across to many listeners as a calculated plan by Chastanet and the so-called “economic class” to return black Saint Lucians to colonialism. He seemed to say, while talking on the phone to Dave Samuels and Nicole Mc Donald, that all he did with his speech was “throw out the idea for discussion.” He did not say where the idea came from. Certainly the subject of Chastanet’s ethnicity has never attracted as much public discussion as has Pierre’s recent remarks, maybe because he sounded so much like a certain rabble-rousing Austrian who in his time blamed all of Germany’s economic problems on a particular race that he accused of controlling the country’s economy.

Pierre did not identify the shade of black that he and his party consider black enough to hold office in mixed-race Saint Lucia. Do Afro-Indians cut it? Are the offspring of immigrants to the UK, Canada and the US who took white partners eligible? Who will determine how much black is black enough to run for office in Saint Lucia?

I happen to know Philip Pierre well. Our friendship dates back many years before his entry into politics. It will therefore come as no surprise that we have often disagreed, as indeed we do now, on many matters including political. Few will deny his excellent service as a government minister, not even his worst detractors. But just when he was about to be canonized, just when he was about to be declared—to use the cliché—a statesman and baggage-free leadership material—this. Which reminds me: On several occasions when his opposition disparagingly linked his policies to his plantation roots and “the massa syndrome,” Kenny Anthony has underscored the self-defeating fall-out from playing the race card in politics. Might the SLP leader be wondering now whether Pierre, when he took his most recent shot at Allen Chastanet, was also taking aim at someone else?

Perhaps what most worries me about the episode is that my friend seems to believe what he said about Chastanet (which supports his party’s earlier position on the tourism minister) was kosher, needed to be said, is deserving of further discussion. You’re wrong, my friend. Pointless discussing racism this late in the day. It has long been established: If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, chances are it ain’t no “panapanierre!”

And how was your week, fellow pilgrim?


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