By Angela Wright.
On July 25, 2014, over 500 Bermudians gathered to protest against a government decision they perceived as harmful to Bermudians. Two days earlier, Home Affairs Minister Michael Fahy announced in the Senate that the One Bermuda Alliance (OBA) decided to reverse its appeal of an earlier verdict by Chief Justice Ian Kawaley — allowing two permanent resident certificate holders (PRC) to obtain Bermuda status and therefore vote in Bermuda’s elections. As the protestors — an almost exclusively black and working class crowd — marched through Bermuda’s capital, they chanted: ‘What do we want? Justice!’
What is it about non-Bermudians being conferred the right to vote that makes many black and working class Bermudians feel disenfranchised? To answer this, one must understand how the oligarchy — Bermuda’s economic elite — historically manipulated immigration policies to entrench its hegemony in Bermudian society and intentionally marginalise black and working class Bermudians.
The oligarchy. Descended from Bermuda’s earliest white settlers, these families grew most of their wealth from slavery, privateering, and seafaring during the 17th to 19th centuries. Throughout this era, the oligarchy used immigration policies to secure its supremacy over Bermudian society. From banishing free blacks during slavery to intentionally courting white European emigrants in the post-emancipation period — discriminatory voting practices also accompanied these immigration policies. Ultimately, white Bermudians held disproportional voting power.
When a restless black population directly challenged its hegemony, the oligarchy increased the property voting requirements and created two new policies: the ‘plural vote’ and the ‘foreign vote’ — the ‘plural vote’ gave wealthy landowners a vote in each parish where they met the property requirements and the ‘foreign vote’ gave non-Bermudian British subjects the right to vote after residing in Bermuda for 3 years. Despite these attempts, a relentless black protest movement secured many civil rights victories and the last restriction to equitable voting was dropped in 1979. It is this past of discriminatory immigration and voting practices that weighs heavily on the contemporary immigration debate in Bermuda.
There are three main discourses operating simultaneously to frame this debate. First, the OBA and many of their supporters employ rhetoric about the fragile Bermudian economy — Bermuda has been experiencing a recession since 2009 after fallout from the 2008 global financial crisis — to insist that supporting the international business sector is the only way Bermuda will be able to maintain its economic prosperity. By re-imagining Bermuda’s potential future as one of poverty and despair, the OBA states that lenient immigration policies will ensure the success of the international business sector and thus the success of Bermuda. A common thread of this discourse is the use of ‘trickle down’ economic rhetoric contending that the conferment of privileges to corporate executives will lead to increased employment and a higher standard of living for Bermudians.
Second, the Progressive Labour Party (PLP) and its supporters argue that black Bermudians remain marginalised despite decades of social and economic progress. Because historical discriminatory policies intentionally targeted blacks, many Bermudians see the current PRC issue as further proof of this marginalisation and disenfranchisement. Part of this resentment stems from the fact that foreign workers earn on average 40% more than Bermudian workers and whites earn on average 50% more than blacks. According to Bermuda’s Department of Statistics, the median income for Bermudians is $57,414, but it is $80,906 for non-Bermudians. The median income for whites and blacks is $84,468 and $55,959 respectively.
Third, the OBA and many of its supporters reject any notion of historical trajectory and dismiss the concerns expressed by the PLP as xenophobia. They stress that any insertion of historical or contemporary race politics into the debate on immigration is divisive and an impediment to social and racial harmony in Bermuda.
Minister Fahy asserted that the government was not thinking about race politics when making their decision about PRC holders. This points to a fundamental divide in the current contestation over immigration policies in Bermuda. Black Bermudians interpret immigration policies through the prism of racial justice while white Bermudians state race is irrelevant to the implementation of these policies. The history of racial injustice is more salient to black Bermudians because they perceive race as more directly affecting their lives. Conversely, many white politicians and other white Bermudians take the contemporary notion of the ‘racelessness’ of Bermudian politics for granted because as whites — who have seldom been affected by the history of racialised socio-economic policies — they have the privilege of not having to consider the ways political decisions may adversely affect other people in Bermuda.
The past weighs unevenly on the peoples of Bermuda. For many black and working class Bermudians, remnants of Bermuda’s historical injustices can still be found. Although the oligarchy no longer holds unyielding power over the country’s political and electoral process, some of the mechanisms — which it used to sustain its hegemony over Bermudian society for over three centuries — persistently reoccur. The uneven and often disparate relationship to this past of historical privilege and injustice has left contemporary Bermudian society fractured along racial and class lines.
PLP parliamentarian Michael Weeks wrote about the ‘two Bermudas,’ each subject to a different set of laws and given different privileges. He concluded, ‘we will never be satisfied as long as injustice, inequity and the opportunity for each of us to reach our full potential is restricted.’ For the PLP and many black Bermudians, historical injustices will always be relevant. Regardless of how their critics attempt to frame them, they will not stop until their voices are heard, and justice is truly served.