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Sunday, December 25, 2005

"Let My People Go, (Backwards)" The legacy of Teele, Carey-Shuler and Meeks

Three recent opportunities have come for progress to be made in Miami’s Black political representation and each time defeat has been snatched out of the jaws of victory. No, in fact there has not been much of a chance for progress because progress implies that there is an impulse to move forward. South Florida’s Black community has been moving backwards now for some time thanks to its representation. It is reasonable to expect a South Florida Black official in the debate about the appalling lack of child health care to blurt, “I don’t know how to born no babies!”

They do the equivalent on a regular basis, in a Step and Fechit routine, where they concentrate on passing legislation beneficial to developers, construction companies and the tourism industry, while doing fuck all for their constituency. Numerous chu’ch leaders have determined that preventing abortion and homosexuality (as if either were possible) are much more important than the sky high infant mortality rate, the highest Black male incarceration /court supervision rate and the highest HIV rate in America. Blacks in Miami are the poorest constituents of the poorest city in the nation and this reality translates into painful, depressing daily realities that all the sunshine in the world cannot blur. So why does Miami’s Black leadership seem so utterly inept and unresponsive?

It is well established that Miami suffers from the lack of a Black middle class. Cities such as Memphis, Atlanta, Houston, *New Orleans, St. Louis, Washington and Philadelphia expectedly have a large black middle class because they are black majority / black run cities. Other cities like New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles also have formidable middle class and affluent communities. In Miami's failure there are historical factors at play.

The lack of progressive Black movements that most of Black America took part in was somehow stunted in South Florida. In the seminal work, “New Day in Babylon”, William Van Deburg describes the various movements that formed Black political and economic evolution. Beginning with the Syndicalism and Socialist movements of Black workers in the Northeast and later the Black enfranchisement movements in the South, Blacks moved forward from a condition of powerless semi-slavery to the monumentally improved conditions and opportunities that many, if not most Blacks enjoy today.

The beneficiaries of radicalism are almost never the radicals themselves. They create the political space by shifting or widening the landscape. And the Civil Rights, Black Nationalist and Afro-centric cultural movements were indeed all radical in the context from which they were born. Civil rights and Black Identity movements provided political activism to secure civic space and influence. These movements also established a highly critical perspective throughout the Black masses that valued unity, Black culture and pride in identity. When Black representation increased, a reform movement demanded accountability. Older institutions established during the pre-integration period while still existing, were the subject of criticism and reform.

The competing visions of separatism and integration are evidence that there are unresolved currents that are a legacy of these movements. Despite the failures or unresolved issues that still exist, these movements in their entirety have had the affect of shaking off many of the culmanitive affects of oppression. In confronting the establishment, these movements eventually forced it to reckon with Blacks as an independent political force, with its own voice.

While the rest of Black America struggles with questions of a growing political divide between middle class beneficiaries of yesterday’s political movements and those left behind, Miami’s Blacks struggle as an entire mass of people that are being left behind. They have not just been left behind politically and economically, they have been left behind the modern era.

Most often local Black political leadership places the blame upon the influx of Cuban Americans and other Hispanics. I suspect that there are a number of other factors at play. Miami’s geographic isolation, political history and struggling economy probably had much more to do with stagnation of the Black community than the influx of Cubans. It is important however that the shift in American attitudes that were accomplished by Black American political and social movements had little to no effect upon the newly arrived, largely isolated group of immigrants. To whatever extent that Blacks reached an accommodation of power, social integration and historical awareness vis a vis the White power structure, it was undone by the eventual arrival of Hispanic power.

It is arguable that Miami's Blacks did not initially see Hispanics as rivals but partners, in challenging the Anglo power regime. Proof of this comes from the Black led lawsuits for school board, county and city representation by district, municipal hiring affirmative action lawsuits, etc. Blacks assumed that Hispanics would simply supply added weight to their political struggle to gain inroads, as had happened in other cities. Blacks did not anticipate the degree to which Hispanics in Miami would establish their own relationships with larger power structures.

Blacks in Miami were often accommodated by the local White power structure out of a desire to avoid the racial tension that marred the South in the Civil Rights era. Leaders were often selected by Anglo leadership to represent the community. A notable example of this is the appointment, not election of former Commisioner Barbara Carey Shuler following the McDuffie riots in 1979. While this did not serve to give grass roots representation to Miami’s Black community it did stifle the impetus to confront power about problematic conditions in the Black community. No local incarnations of SNCC, CORE, Black Freedom Party, Panther Party or other such organizations developed from the need to unite and confront White power. The only organizing impulse remained within a particularly regressive local Black church structure. Black leadership as it was, had no pole to be answerable to in its failure to deliver real gains. What gains were delivered were to be challenged by the newly arriving minority Hispanic community.

Solomon Stinson as a perennial Miami-Dade school board chairman followed in the footsteps of Black superintendent Johnny Jones (convicted of diverting public money). Stinson controlled school board politics in the transitional phase of White exit from the county. In this era Black teachers and other employees were hired en masse, replacing Anglos that fled the system. In an effort to maintain power Dade School Board member Stinson came to build a coalition with Hispanics as a junior partner. Patronage hiring soon ballooned into construction contracts. The burgeoning Latin Builders Association members previously did not have the experience or capacity to vie for school construction contracts. This changed radically under the new review board instituted by Black and Hispanic board representatives. In poverty stricken Miami public hiring and public spending could not be expected to go unchallenged. Hispanics were compelled to fight for control over the school board, and nasty battles with the Black dominated teacher and employee unions followed.

In Miami city and Miami-Dade county government Blacks did not fare as well. Once the districting was created several seats switched to become Hispanic dominant thus negating the design of boundaries that were configured to make a Black / Hispanic coalition necessary for both parties. Black majority districts had been drawn extremely large by Black leadership wary of Black voter apathy. In all but a single county department (Transportation), Blacks were all but shut out.

With the new Hispanic majority Blacks struggled to maintain their gains partially because they were not given entry to a merit based system or elite social institutions. Miami’s business forums, exclusive schools and colleges, clubs and social organizations remained segregated. The Black business community had been driven, uncompensated, from their downtown businesses with the construction of the I-95 exchange in Overtown. Even if they had been integrated into these structures, Miami’s new Hispanic elite did not recognize the existing structures' validity until they themselves dominated them. When they did, they did not feel compelled to accommodate Blacks into these structures in any real or meaningful way.

Miami's Blacks are thus left with unresponsive political leadership, geographically, economically and socially isolated and with a barely existent entrepreneurial class. Still it would seem with a substantial voting population all would not be lost. After all the Black electorate in Miami is as large as the Cuban American electorate.

This is where the peculiar history and culture of Miami’s Black community haunts it. The culture of Black Miami did not create a post-Civil Rights consciousness or civic institutions that would breed a new crop of Black leaders. The same leaders that came into power years ago are now entering dotage. Young, well educated Blacks with community involvement are in limited supply and they are not welcomed by the old warhorses, likely out of jealousy. Like the rest of Miami, African American leaders are insular, inbred and wary of things unfamiliar.

There is a new wrinkle. In the past several decades in major cities along the East Coast, the number of Caribbean immigrants and their descendants are growing rapidly. The cultural isolation has meant that while these groups live adjacent to African Americans they do not share the same cultural heritage or identity. Lacking the historic baggage and making use of family and community resources, this group is leap-frogging their African American counterparts. Formerly middle class African American suburbs from Chelsea (Boston) Uniondale (New York) to Silver Springs (Washington, DC) and even here in Western Broward are now West Indian. A study last year by Lani Guinier and Henry Louis Gates Jr., pointed out that most Blacks admitted to Ivy League and other elite institutions are either West Indians or born of West Indian parents. Broward has the fastest growing Black community in the entire U.S. and it is almost entirely fueled by West Indians directly from the Caribbean and the Northeast. In fact Jamaicans, not Cubans, Puerto Ricans, or Haitians are the largest group of foreign born residents in Broward County.

Miami Dade has its share of recent West Indian immigrantion, including (but not limited to) Haitians. This group is now demanding representation. The friction that exists in other East Coast cities is exacerbated by the cultural distance between Miami-Dade's African Americans and newly arriving West Indians. What is often not appreciated is the degree in which West Indians are hyper political, with political ideals far removed from certain segments of American Blacks. After all, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Louis Farrakhan, Stokely Carmichael were all of West Indian parentage. Most West Indian independence movements of the 1960’s and 70’s were led by socialist and syndicalists. Aristide was a self proclaimed socialist. The widely popular anti-neocolonial Haitian Negritude movement was and is Black Nationalist/Pan African and socialist in character. These movements and leaders have had cross pollinated in Northern cities for years but they are utterly alien to Miami’s Black community.

In South Florida West Indian immigrants are shunned by the mainstream media, as if ignoring their existence will keep them at bay. Even in Broward where the largest group of immigrants is Jamaicans, there is almost no news coverage. The Sun-Sentinel shows a blatant disregard for this community, preferring to focus on Latinos. Isolation has not had a negative effect, as West Indian immigrants create their own businesses and become technical professionals. Eventually these Caribbean blacks will form the largest bloc of voters in Broward, forcing the White, Black (and Hispanic) communities to come to terms with them. Black leaders in Miami-Dade and South Florida have unfortunately seemed unwilling or incapable of reaching true understanding and cooperation.

On another planet a cause for comparison: A colleague of mine, (of Jamaican parentage) finishing his M.P.A. program was running for a seat on the Nassau County Board of Supervisors. I was recruited by the Republican Party to oppose him but did not because I was on my way back to Miami. Nassau, a county of three million people, twenty percent Hispanic and twenty percent Black, with a wide array of other minorities is also one of the five most affluent counties in America. Thus there was a lot at stake with a seat on the board of supervisors. Both of us, in our twenties, were supported by minority community leaders as a whole, (in the Northeast where despite differences minorities have a definitive overarching identity as people of color). We would not expect otherwise. After all, wasn’t that the reason why generations sacrificed so much?

*Note: It also should be recognized that New Orleans Black residents had an average income, rate of homeownership, and percentage of those with high school diplomas and college education much in excess of Miami's. New Orleans was not even in the top twenty of America’s poorest cities, quite a feat for a large Southern city. Yet the world was horrified at a rare glimpse of that city’s African American poverty. What should America think of Miami?

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