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OPINION: Perfectionism, meritocracy, and Protestant work ethic under attack

By GHK Lall

“NYC Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has made ‘whiteness’ toxic, Department of Education insiders claim” (NY Post May 18). Unfortunately, switch the color scheme to ‘brownness’ or ‘blackness’ and that claim would quickly find volume and mileage right here in political and bureaucratic Guyana. All one has to do is weigh the years. First, some foreign context.

The basis of the claim is contained in a suit filed by four women, all white, for discrimination. Without delving into the merits or demerits of the suit brought by the still anonymous litigants, the allegation is that they have been “either demoted or stripped of their duties;” and “contend that they were “pushed aside for less qualified people of color.” Guyanese have heard the same litany over and over as being practiced by one administration after another, including the last one and this one. This is part of the context of the suit brought, which I fit into local circumstances, be such Foreign Affairs or GECOM.

I substitute “less qualified people of color” for less qualified of a different color and it has been the Guyanese track, with color being synonymous with race here. Check after every election; do the math; read the color charts and codes. I submit that race has always been the decisive factor. Same thing; same story; same result, same job environment. Matters are a little more subdued this go around, but just a little. Whether mild or monstrous, I further submit that this has harmed and devastated this society through a thousand unkind, untreated, and unsolved cuts. Yet this society hurtles with aplomb toward the fateful precipice of one unchanging election after another, lacking in remorse, dismissive of remedy.

There is, however, something more that is just as disturbing, if not more so. According to the same New York Post article, quoting an anonymous white executive, training efforts emphasized that, “White supremacy is characterized by perfectionism, a belief in meritocracy, and the Protestant work ethic.” I find this troubling and self-defeating, whatever the underlying contexts and rationales, and wherever such is denigrated, and by whomever.

Aside from white supremacy which exists with all of its entrenched perversities and must be denounced unsparingly, I know of many older Guyanese, many migrants, and others of every race and creed and color, who have used those three pillars and dynamics as guiding stars, and found that the related aspirations, efforts, and journeys (all immeasurably grueling) have been worthwhile, honorable, and rewarding. That is, the ideals of striving for “perfection, a belief in meritocracy, and the Protestant work ethic.” The former two are inarguable for their roles in unhindered and unaided (politically) individual successes and triumphs, while the latter no longer is the sole preserve of an austere Protestant calling. I remind that it is that work ethic and the unflagging dedication to standards, which constitute the powertrains that drive minorities, of all tongues and beliefs, to the summits of perfectionism, to claim an earned and rightful place. In so doing, others of a different mental strain and racial stripe are compelled to bow willingly or unwillingly, to the relentless pressures of meritocracy.

I would argue that, in their unperfected ways, Burnham and Jagan and Hoyte fought hard to practice at least two of those three elements in their personal and political lives. I believe in all three. I have tried to go somewhere with them, have managed a little. So, too, did such luminaries as Ben Carson and Barack and Powell. Moreover, I think that that work ethic of Calvin and Protestants in general could be extended to Modi and Gandhi, John Paul II and Francis, Liaquat Ali Khan and Benazir Bhutto, none of whom were or are Protestant. Like them or leave them, but they stand as monuments to a particular kind of exceptionalism and to an even more stirring degree.

The downside and investment are sacrifice, and sometimes disappointment: the waiting, the denying, the marginalizing. The joy is in the overcoming. This is the sinew and self-belief that younger Guyanese need; this is the endless symphony that must resound in the head and heart. I can. I must. And, I will. And if that is perfectionism and meritocracy and the Protestant work ethic, then I am all for it, with every fiber of me. It was what I sought to impart unflinchingly and continuously during my tenure at the Marian Academy. It is what I know. It is what I recommend anywhere and everywhere to all. Followers of Darwin might think he prevails; I see it as an altogether different, special kind of grace.

Failure to reach for and embrace those lodestones is a recipe for complacency with mediocrity, for the poverty of the ordinary, and generosity toward indecency. My people were poor, but they had pride and conviction. I would like to think that I have that, too. My peers, brown and black and off-white, were maybe not as poor, but they, too, possessed that high-octane self-respect to rise beyond circumstances, beyond limitations, and beyond those desiring to keep down. That is why so many have made their place. It is because they have given of their best and, in time, been recognized by the best as the best. Can’t keep a good man (or woman) down. Not for long. Not with some fires burning. Not with discontent at being in second place. And not with total rejection of relegation (through force or by self) to the back of the line.

Therefore, I disagree most strenuously with Chancellor Richard Carranza of New York’s Department of Education, if such was indeed the case. I would assert most wholeheartedly that this “perfectionism, a belief in meritocracy, and…work ethic” are what this country needs through a sustained display of dedication to those priceless essences and standards. They can only take forward and upward.

Mr. GHK Lall is a Guyanese author, columnist and former financial analyst on Wall Street.