“Social Stratification continues to be a key feature of Caribbean Society.” Using examples to support your answer, discuss the extent to which you agree with this statement. Social stratification refers to the ways in which a particular society ranks the various social groups according to one or more criteria that are valued in the society. This ranking indicates that some groups have more and some have less of what society values, including wealth, status and prestige. This system of social stratification shows that groups in society are unequal and the pattern of inequality that forms persists from one generation to the next. It can be agreed that ‘social stratification’ continues to be a key feature of Caribbean society but many criteria have changed although some survive. Colonialism, Indentureship, Emancipation, the development of trade unions in the 1930s, Independence in 1962 and the modern Caribbean all have a part to play in the discussion of social stratification as it relates to Caribbean history. According to the historical definition of the Caribbean, the term describes a, area which saw the impact of European colonialism, slavery, Indentureship and the plantation system in the late fifteenth (15th) century.
During this period, the Caribbean society experienced a closed system of social stratification where the criteria determining a person’s position in the social hierarchy were race and colour and social mobility was almost non-existent because the colour and race of those below proclaimed their low status. The Europeans had control over many Caribbean societies and they controlled the indigenous people. When they all died out, the Africans were brought in to be enslaved. The Africans were seen as lowly persons who were worth nothing so therefore they were the group with the lowest social status. Due to the fact that they were black, they were put to the bottom of the social hierarchy, which consisted of Whites, who were at the top and the Coloureds and free-blacks in the middle. The development of this stratified society was based on race and colour. The diagram below shows the system of social stratification during the era of slavery and as can be seen, one’s race clearly said what one’s social position was.
Figure : Social Stratification under slavery
After the emancipation in 1838, the enslaved Africans were now free but the Whites still needed persons to work on the sugar plantations that the Africans left. Indentured workers who were the Asians, Indians and Chinese were now brought to work on contract, so when their time was complete, they could have returned home. These indentured labourers did not last very long, but they made up the fourth (4th) strata of the hierarchy and the Africans were now higher than someone else so although the criteria was still race and colour, the Africans felt as though they moved up the social hierarchy because they were no longer at the bottom.
Since the Africans were now free, primary school education was available to all and they were led by religious bodies. Social mobility was now possible for some because through education, jobs such as clerks in ministries, teachers, plumbers and carpenters were being offered. The Whites however were still at the top of the hierarchy and had ownership over the land and government, and the Africans who were now moving up the stratas, still were unable to move to the upper class.
In the 1930s, there was the development of trade unions where they fought for the rights of the oil workers in Trinidad who worked in the oil industry which was owned by the British. Once workers felt that they were being mistreated or not being paid properly, strikes were organised by the union. Once workers strike, no productivity will take place so the British would now have to treat the workers fairly in order for them to start back working. Political parties were now developed and social mobility continued through these government jobs that were now being offered. The Africans were now getting better salaries and benefits, helping them to move up the social hierarchy.
Almost thirty (30) years later, in 1962, Trinidad and Tobago gained its independence from Great Britain and the Africans were now in power so some were actually at the top of the social hierarchy. Primary, secondary and tertiary was now free for all races and colours. Although some blacks were at the top or in the upper class, there were still some discrimination in banks and other jobs. This led to the black power movement in 1970s.
Today, in modern Caribbean, wealth and power are the criteria for social mobility and no longer race and colour. At present in the Caribbean, the blacks and the Indians are now at the top of the social hierarchy due to education, which was now offered to all so Africans were now taking the opportunity to reach higher in life. Although race and colour still play a vital role in determining social stratification, sports, the arts and marriage are also vehicles of social mobility.
All in all, it can be seen that social stratification is a key factor but over time the criteria has changed from race and colour, now to wealth and power through education as the main vehicle for social mobility.