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Increasing dialogue between S. Florida blacks, whites enhance understanding

Increasing dialogue between S. Florida blacks, whites enhance understanding

By Gregory Lewis
Staff Writer

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 conversations.

Conversations start

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 begin.

But sometimes even talking can't be achieved on such emotionally charged matters.

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 board.

"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 chance."

Hardwick said Cooper had a "personal vendetta" against some committee members and had never detailed any concerns to him about the board's performance.

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.

The 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

In 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 observations.

"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 less."

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 status.

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 forward."

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 said.

"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 tensions

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 black-white relationships.

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 white.

"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."

Former Hispanic 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 lynching victim.

For eight weeks, 64 Belle Glade residents, including the five commissioners, participated in study circles on race in an attempt to ease the tension.

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.

After the 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 had power."

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 coming

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 will be added.

Some slights can only be healed by time and understanding, Chieves said.

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.

"That's an 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 occurred."

Gregory Lewis can be reached at glewis@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4203.

Copyright Ā 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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