Increasing dialogue between S. Florida blacks, whites enhance understanding
Increasing dialogue between S. Florida blacks, whites enhance
January 12, 2004
In the 1930s, when
racial segregation was the order of the day in Florida, the Shuler Bridge was
the connection between predominantly black Belle Glade and the white
neighborhoods across the Hillsborough Canal.
Today the bridge links two
racially diverse neighborhoods but still symbolizes a divide between blacks and
whites in this Palm Beach County enclave.
Three black and two white
council members often vote along racial lines, and it is not uncommon for one
side to accuse the other of racism, loudly and publicly.
But a small
group in Belle Glade, black and white, is trying to bridge the divide through
discussion. In weekly study circles
, they discuss race relations in hopes of
putting the past behind them.
"The study circles are huge," said Barbara
Chieves, president of Toward A More Perfect Union, a group formed to deal with
race relations in Palm Beach County. "The study circles are not different from
the work being done in other cities. People are realizing that you can't start
to build things without talking to one another."
Other South Florida
cities, including Hallandale Beach, Hollywood and Lauderdale Lakes, are forming
task forces and conducting summits on race relations. Their goal: to prevent, or
at least mitigate, racially explosive situations.
In Lauderdale Lakes, a
commissioner has taken it upon himself to have race relations summits; in
Hollywood, the mayor launched a racial justice task force that conducts forums
on race issues.
While race issues have permeated South Florida since
Henry Flagler came to build the railroad, they intensified during the 1960s
civil rights movement. Today, in the post-civil-rights era and in an
increasingly diverse region, clashes have given way to
It may just be
talk, experts say, but the divergent sides often have not had such discussions,
which can allow each side to begin to get an honest sense of how the other
feels. Dicey conversation often is where racial healing
and understanding can
But sometimes even talking can't be achieved on such emotionally
In Hallandale Beach, where the Community Relations
Committee was sponsoring mixers to bring together mostly white east side
dwellers with members of the predominantly black west side, community leaders
are discovering how difficult such discussions can be. The committee's efforts
have stalled to the point where the mayor is considering dissolving the
"It's dysfunctional," said Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper. "In
six months, they haven't moved anything. Maybe it's the dynamic of the board.
But they have not produced."
Cooper said she had hoped the board would
promote cultural events that would bring people from all over the city and
educate them through ethnic events and workshops.
"I am going to fight
her tooth and nail," said John Hardwick, a barber and the chairman of the
committee. "This board has a wonderful opportunity to bring about some true
community relations. We've spent time trying to get to know each other and learn
the lives of different people. She's not given the board a
Hardwick said Cooper had a "personal vendetta" against some
committee members and had never detailed any concerns to him about the board's
The Hallandale Beach situation became even more racially
tense when the City Commission and the Community Civic Association, a northwest
Hallandale Beach organization that initiated the King Day Parade more than a
decade ago, clashed over who should be the parade's grand marshal.
Community Civic Association selected suspended Broward Supervisor of Elections
Miriam Oliphant, but the City Commission, days later, passed legislation that
would make the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award winner grand marshal.
The Civic Association refused to accept the city's choice, and the commission
pulled its funding for the parade.
"We've got a lot of controversy in
this city," Hardwick said.Whites' views vary
contrast, Broward Assistant Public Defender Howard Finkelstein gained the
confidence of a predominantly black audience at a race relations summit in
Lauderdale Lakes in early November with his unvarnished
"Whites are lost in their whiteness," he said. "There is
privilege. Whites can walk in a store and not be followed. Whites are treated
better. Black people worked very hard to get what they have, but they still have
Finkelstein, who is white, also pointed out that "blacks are
equally lost in their anger" over their historic treatment: a legacy of slavery,
"separate-but-equal" facilities, higher unemployment, less pay for the same
work, back-door service, back-of-the-bus rides and second-class
But many whites, such as Coral Springs Commissioner Rhonda
Calhoun, who was an invited panelist at the same forum, say they were not part
of that history of mistreatment and, therefore, shouldn't have to pay for the
error of their ancestors' ways.
"I am uncomfortable about slavery,"
Calhoun said at the forum. "The Asian-American internment and the Holocaust make
me uncomfortable. But what also makes me uncomfortable is the refusal to move
As today's public institutions try to address past inequities,
she sees her son, a high school senior, grow angry about the perceived
advantages racial minorities get when applying to college, Calhoun
"My sons were not brought up to be prejudiced. I have to deal with
a 17-year-old who wasn't angry a year ago."Interracial
In Lauderdale Lakes, blacks hold a majority on the City
Commission. But dialogue on race does not run along traditional color lines in
the once predominantly white suburb. Many black residents speak with a Caribbean
lilt and face resentment from some American-born blacks. Black-on-black
discrimination is as often part of the equation for healing color line wounds as
In fact, with an immigrant influx from Latin
America and the Caribbean, race does not divide solely along black and white
lines anywhere in South Florida. Brown adds another dimension to black and white
racial tension. Civil rights concerns of Latinos also need to be addressed,
often in Spanish. Yet many leaders continue to view race strictly in black and
"Whites are at the top, and blacks are at the bottom," said
Lauderdale Lakes Commissioner Levoyd Williams. "If we can solve that, then the
browns who are in the middle will be taken care of."
Unity leader Margarita Zalamea, who co-chairs the Hollywood Racial Justice
Commission, countered: "It's not that simple."
Zalamea said providing
access to government services and informing Hispanic immigrant groups of the
services, particularly when they come from corrupt government regimes, are prime
issues that need discussion.
In Belle Glade, though, racial healing still
means black and white. Two months after the local chapter of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People took a discrimination
complaint to the City Commission, a black man was discovered hanging from a
tree. The death of Feraris "Ray" Golden, which was ruled a suicide, polarized
Belle Glade even more than it had been. Some blacks thought Golden was a
For eight weeks, 64 Belle Glade residents, including the
five commissioners, participated in study circles on race in an attempt to ease
Another round will begin this month -- and is needed if a
recent exchange between the commissioners passes for improved race relations. At
a commission meeting in November, the commissioners segregated themselves on the
dais and voted along racial lines on every split-decision vote.
meeting, Commissioner Donald Garrett, who is white, confronted black
Commissioner Mary Kendall, calling her a racist.
The next day, Belle
Glade Police Chief Michael Miller, who is white, alleged corruption among the
three black commissioners.
"It's a very, very, rough struggle here in
Belle Glade," Kendall said. "Change is hard for people, especially for those who
Commissioner Garrett could not be reached for comment,
despite repeated attempts.
"People here never had a meaningful dialogue
about of lot of things," said Chieves of Toward A More Perfect Union, "much less
about race, where they were not yelling at each other."Change is
But Chieves is not discouraged. At least the races are
talking and solutions are being discussed. Their dialogues may soon extend to
bank officials, police and the commission. New members of the study circle
Some slights can only be healed by time and understanding,
Others are simple. The Shuler Bridge, paid for by Lawrence
Shuler, a black man, no longer bears his name. And even when it did, it was
noted on a plaque out of sight, beneath the bridge. That was a slight blacks
brought up in the study circle discussions.
Now there are plans to give
Shuler his due with a plaque in a more prominent location, giving blacks a sense
of pride and the study circles their first accomplishment.
easy fix," said Chieves. "The action forum gave people a chance to talk about
their experiences. Whites overwhelmingly never really listened to blacks, and
blacks never knew how whites felt. I didn't realize how much dialogue had not
Gregory Lewis can be reached at email@example.com or
Copyright Ā 2004, South Florida