The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis echoes off Florida’s own sorry racial history. Nearly 4,000 documented lynchings — the state was No. 1 in lynchings per capita from 1877- 1950. The 1920 Ocoee Massacre, in which a white mob killed more than 50 black people on Election Day after some tried to vote. The annihilation of the Rosewood community by a white mob in 1923. The false accusations of rape in 1949 against four young men known as the Groveland Four, two of whom were killed, extra-judicially, by “law enforcement.” The bombing murders of NAACP leaders Harriette and Harry Moore in Brevard County in 1951 — one of the first assassinations of a civil rights leader in the country. No one was ever arrested or charged. “Ax Handle Saturday” in Jacksonville in 1960, when a white mob attacked peaceful protesters at a segregated lunch counter and chased them through the streets, assisted at times by the police. My family moved to Jacksonville in the early 1960s, and I remember, in the train station downtown, separate water fountains for black and white travelers. And I remember a “whites only” sign taped on the front window of a laundromat in a small shopping center near our house.
Then Arthur McDuffie, a black former Marine military policeman beaten to death by six Miami cops in 1979 after a traffic stop; an all-white jury in Tampa acquitted the officers of murder charges. Meanwhile, in a state with only one vaguely notable Civil War battle (Olustee), more than 30 Confederate monuments, including two in Miami of all places. Along with a raft of schools, towns and a county — Lee — named for Confederate generals or officials. And active resistance — led by state Sen. Dennis Baxley — to an attempt to erect a privately funded monument at Olustee to the Union soldiers who died there, including black troops whose wounded were massacred by the Confederate soldiers on the field.
The Floyd murder energized social warriors throughout the state, who — along with a few opportunistic, violent hangerson — made their presence felt on the streets. Notably, the anger and outrage over Floyd’s killing seemed to extend more broadly into a portion of the white population that’s inclined toward a see-no-evil view of police misconduct. The video of Floyd’s death didn’t leave much room for discussion about what had happened. At least in some quarters, there was some heightened appreciation for how deep racism runs in our society.
We’ll see whether the Floyd case actually moves the needle on policies connected with the systemic aspects of racism. “Defund the Police” is about as poorly conceived a slogan as can be imagined, but policies to “Retrain the Police,” “Remanage the Police” or “Reorient the Police” away from knee-jerk assertions of power and toward de-escalation could find support. There are other things to address. More resources for public health. Formal redlining by banks may be gone, but something is wrong when, as studies consistently show, black people can’t get loans that white people get with similar credit histories.
Ultimately, defeating racism depends on equalizing economic opportunity. Black people in Florida are twice as likely as whites to be poor and three times as likely to live in the 15 ZIP codes that account for more than half of the children in poverty in Florida. Long term, the best way to build economic opportunity and wealth in minority communities will involve locally focused, public-private economic development efforts like the Lift Orlando project and the ZIP code-focused efforts envisioned by the Florida Chamber Foundation’s Prosperity Initiative. JPMorgan Chase has put millions into promising neighborhood-focused economic development efforts, including $360,000 into the Broward Prosperity program that’s an offshoot of the Chamber Foundation’s project.
Meanwhile, it’s a healthy sign that many black parents are taking advantage of school choice programs to find better educational avenues for their children than traditional public schools, which often reflect many of the same operational dynamics as the police departments — including a lack of accountability and a disinclination to innovate.
But what about the more insidious, implicit forms of racism — born of fear and white perception that “they” are different — and inferior? Here in St. Petersburg where I live, the black population lives mostly south of Central Avenue. Many real estate brokers still won’t show homes south of Central Avenue to prospective buyers, despite the presence of both upscale white neighborhoods and safe, integrated middle-class neighborhoods. Ask them about it, and you’ll hear classic racial code — “I’m just not familiar with the area. Isn’t it a little dangerous? Don’t the schools there have problems?”
What to do about white assumptions that a black restaurant patron waiting for his car is the valet rather than a customer? Or that the black teenager walking down the street listening to music on his headphones is somehow more dangerous than the white suburban kid with headphones listening to the same music? Or that the black customer browsing the aisles of the department store is somehow more likely to shoplift?
For many otherwise well-intentioned white people, racism is hard to acknowledge because, as Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts points out, they view it as a “character defect,” something to be ashamed of. And so we hide behind claims of being “color-blind” because we have a black friend at work or a black neighbor. Anyone who says he’s color-blind is either an idiot, willfully self-deceptive or both. The issue isn’t to not see color, it’s to change what we think when we see it.
It’s really not that hard to acknowledge that our collective history has left us with skewed perceptions and attitudes about black people that are simply part of the air we breathe. Going from being “non-racist” to, in Pitts’ paradigm, “actively anti-racist” will probably continue to be difficult for many. But a real acknowledgement of what’s in the air may be a step in clearing it — and in changing attitudes and behaviors that hold us all back, both white and black.
— Mark Howard, Executive Editor
Read more in Florida Trend's August issue.
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