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HomeNewsArchivesThe V.I. From a Distance: The Racial Dynamic (Part 2)

The V.I. From a Distance: The Racial Dynamic (Part 2)

Starting in the Civil Rights era, the U.S. Virgin Islands could have become a model for people living in peace and harmony in multi-racial communities. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, but things are always more complicated than they seem. And going as far back as the Fountain Valley incident almost 40 years ago, white Americans and the mainland mass media – when they have noticed at all – have always tended to view the territory’s racial dynamic through a U.S. prism rather than trying to understand it on its own terms. Even so, for those who have been around for a long time, there is a clear sense of missed opportunity, as well as an erosion of the values of trust, inclusion and tolerance.

It is quite certain that, had she been elected, Hillary Clinton would have pursued policies similar to those of the Obama Administration. But it is very unlikely that the Tea Party and its adherents would have emerged as the force that they have in response to a Hillary Clinton Administration.

President Obama’s race is the driving force behind the Tea Party and the more extreme groups that are growing in strength in the United States. The U.S. has never had anything like a “truth and reconciliation” commission to come to grips with its awful and tortured racial history. As a result, it has been relatively easy for reactionary forces to rewrite history and, in a truly amazing twist on reality, to cast white people as the victims of racism. As a graduate student in Political Science at the University of Texas said, “First, we had slavery, and now we have affirmative action. They’re both bad, and we had to get rid of them.”

Beyond “God help us,” how do you react to such comments, which are not unusual among American whites today? And now, one of the “others” is President, and white fears, prejudices and insecurities are on full display.

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In the U.S. Virgin Islands, whites have long been a minority, albeit the minority at the top of the income pyramid. Whites coming to the territory have been immigrants, even if the American flag convinced them otherwise. As the geographer Jared Diamond would put it, blacks could elect people to office, but whites have most of the “cargo.”

And, in some instances, they have treated their arrival with an “OK, we’re here now” attitude. This attitude is hardly limited to the territory. For example, more upscale whites (and blacks) have moved into a new condominium in Harlem, across from Marcus Garvey Park. In warm weather, drummers play in the park until fairly late and have done so for many years. The new people want some peace and quiet and begin to complain. Who is right? It all depends on who you ask.

How has this racial and class dynamic worked out in the territory in recent decades? Vehicle license tags sometimes carry interesting messages. For example, in New Hampshire, the plates say “Live Free or Die.” This may be translated as: Liberals, you are in the wrong state. Go to Vermont. In Quebec, the tags say “Je Me Souvien” (“I remember”). But I remember what? Mostly they mean that “I”, a French speaking Quebecer, remember what a bunch of bastards the English speakers have been. Oh, and, if you are leaving, good riddance.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the plates used to say “American Paradise,” a very welcoming message that, for most people, carried both an inclusive social message and a statement of the islands’ physical beauty. Ten years ago, the message changed to “Our Islands, Our Home.” Like the “I” in the Quebec slogan, it was important to understand who the “our” was in “Our Islands, Our Home” was.
For a lot of people, it was a message that was less welcoming and that implied that “our” referred to those who were “born here.” Not “born here” made you one of the “others,” kind of like the liberals in New Hampshire and the English speakers in Quebec.

These plates represented a change. For the longtime visitor and observer, the territory feels like a less inclusive place than it was 30 or 40 years ago. A couple of things seem quite striking. Over the years, in many discussions, it seems as if black and white Virgin Islanders are increasingly like ships passing in the night, with little real communication about what was happening or how they could come together to solve problems.

And, as in many places, Latino Virgin Islanders and others are on the sideline watching the spectacle and trying to not take sides.

Within the “American Paradise,” St. John has always seemed to me to be the most paradisiacal, both physically and socially. I don’t think that is true anymore, and on recent visits, I have heard negative racial comments and sensed a climate of hostility, things that were unthinkable in the past.

Finally, in a region that is often and legitimately labeled as being homophobic, St. Thomas, in particular, always seemed way ahead of its time in accepting gay people for who they were rather than judging them for what they were. My sense is that this has also eroded, especially among young people.

Like organizations, the most successful societies are the ones with high levels of trust. On a certain level, people have to trust one another if things are going to work reasonably well. Building trust is a lot easier when everyone looks the same, more or less thinks the same, and there are not great income disparities. When you don’t have these foundations stones, it takes hard work. The starting point is people being willing to put in the effort. That willingness seems to have gone away in the territory.

Grade: C- There was an opportunity to be a model for others, and it was not seized. A place that was better than the rest of the country has, unfortunately, become more like it.

Next week Frank will take a look at how well the territory’s done in its effort to make "big government" work.

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Starting in the Civil Rights era, the U.S. Virgin Islands could have become a model for people living in peace and harmony in multi-racial communities. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, but things are always more complicated than they seem. And going as far back as the Fountain Valley incident almost 40 years ago, white Americans and the mainland mass media - when they have noticed at all - have always tended to view the territory's racial dynamic through a U.S. prism rather than trying to understand it on its own terms. Even so, for those who have been around for a long time, there is a clear sense of missed opportunity, as well as an erosion of the values of trust, inclusion and tolerance.

It is quite certain that, had she been elected, Hillary Clinton would have pursued policies similar to those of the Obama Administration. But it is very unlikely that the Tea Party and its adherents would have emerged as the force that they have in response to a Hillary Clinton Administration.

President Obama’s race is the driving force behind the Tea Party and the more extreme groups that are growing in strength in the United States. The U.S. has never had anything like a “truth and reconciliation” commission to come to grips with its awful and tortured racial history. As a result, it has been relatively easy for reactionary forces to rewrite history and, in a truly amazing twist on reality, to cast white people as the victims of racism. As a graduate student in Political Science at the University of Texas said, “First, we had slavery, and now we have affirmative action. They’re both bad, and we had to get rid of them.”

Beyond “God help us,” how do you react to such comments, which are not unusual among American whites today? And now, one of the “others” is President, and white fears, prejudices and insecurities are on full display.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, whites have long been a minority, albeit the minority at the top of the income pyramid. Whites coming to the territory have been immigrants, even if the American flag convinced them otherwise. As the geographer Jared Diamond would put it, blacks could elect people to office, but whites have most of the “cargo.”

And, in some instances, they have treated their arrival with an “OK, we’re here now” attitude. This attitude is hardly limited to the territory. For example, more upscale whites (and blacks) have moved into a new condominium in Harlem, across from Marcus Garvey Park. In warm weather, drummers play in the park until fairly late and have done so for many years. The new people want some peace and quiet and begin to complain. Who is right? It all depends on who you ask.

How has this racial and class dynamic worked out in the territory in recent decades? Vehicle license tags sometimes carry interesting messages. For example, in New Hampshire, the plates say “Live Free or Die.” This may be translated as: Liberals, you are in the wrong state. Go to Vermont. In Quebec, the tags say “Je Me Souvien” (“I remember”). But I remember what? Mostly they mean that “I”, a French speaking Quebecer, remember what a bunch of bastards the English speakers have been. Oh, and, if you are leaving, good riddance.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the plates used to say “American Paradise,” a very welcoming message that, for most people, carried both an inclusive social message and a statement of the islands’ physical beauty. Ten years ago, the message changed to “Our Islands, Our Home.” Like the “I” in the Quebec slogan, it was important to understand who the “our” was in “Our Islands, Our Home” was.
For a lot of people, it was a message that was less welcoming and that implied that “our” referred to those who were “born here.” Not “born here” made you one of the “others,” kind of like the liberals in New Hampshire and the English speakers in Quebec.

These plates represented a change. For the longtime visitor and observer, the territory feels like a less inclusive place than it was 30 or 40 years ago. A couple of things seem quite striking. Over the years, in many discussions, it seems as if black and white Virgin Islanders are increasingly like ships passing in the night, with little real communication about what was happening or how they could come together to solve problems.

And, as in many places, Latino Virgin Islanders and others are on the sideline watching the spectacle and trying to not take sides.

Within the “American Paradise,” St. John has always seemed to me to be the most paradisiacal, both physically and socially. I don’t think that is true anymore, and on recent visits, I have heard negative racial comments and sensed a climate of hostility, things that were unthinkable in the past.

Finally, in a region that is often and legitimately labeled as being homophobic, St. Thomas, in particular, always seemed way ahead of its time in accepting gay people for who they were rather than judging them for what they were. My sense is that this has also eroded, especially among young people.

Like organizations, the most successful societies are the ones with high levels of trust. On a certain level, people have to trust one another if things are going to work reasonably well. Building trust is a lot easier when everyone looks the same, more or less thinks the same, and there are not great income disparities. When you don’t have these foundations stones, it takes hard work. The starting point is people being willing to put in the effort. That willingness seems to have gone away in the territory.

Grade: C- There was an opportunity to be a model for others, and it was not seized. A place that was better than the rest of the country has, unfortunately, become more like it.

Next week Frank will take a look at how well the territory's done in its effort to make "big government" work.