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Written by John Ise, BT Contributor   
September 2017

 

Group lays the groundwork for talks about race

NPix_JohnIse_9-17ow, the Star-Belly Sneetches / Had belies with stars. / The Plain-Belly Sneetches / Had none upon thars. / Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small / You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all. / But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches / Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.” / With their shoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort / “We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”

Attending the South Florida People of Color unity dialogue in July at Miami Shores Community Church, I found myself thinking, oddly enough, about the late great Dr. Seuss’s story “The Sneetches.”

As a refresher, the Sneetches are yellow beach-dwelling creatures, some of whom have green stars on their stomachs, and these Sneetches discriminate against the Sneetches who lack belly stars. Dr. Seuss wrote the story in 1961 as a tale against discrimination, specifically anti-Semitism, and it remains for me one of the simplest yet most effective examples of writing that ridicules bigotry.

And it may be a story we need to revisit to see if it applies to us, particularly in the aftermath of Charlottesville. Villagers of Miami Shores, Biscayne Park, and El Portal are progressive, forward-thinking, and generally open-minded types; but at times those sunny dispositions can turn darkly suspicious when the words “non-resident” or “outsider,” or even the generic “them” enters civic discourse. How much of this reaction is racial…or nationalistic…or economic…or ethnic…or linguistic is anyone’s guess. But there’s something going on.

With this at least partly in mind, in 2015, then Miami Shores Councilwoman Ivonne Ledesma and community activist Roni Bennett founded the Miami Shores People of Color, which has since graduated into the South Florida People of Color (PoC). The group’s mission is to promote more dialogue among the races, boost minority participation in Village affairs and government, and, of particular concern, ensure fair and proper treatment of the somewhat hidden Haitian-American population, which constitutes about ten percent of the Village.

Bennett, a 14-year Shores resident of Jamaican and African-American descent, serves as executive director of South Florida People of Color and says the Village needs to embrace its growing diversity more openly. Based on the turnout and robust participation in the July “Unity360 Dialogues,” which spanned two Saturdays, Bennett and PoC seem to be laying the groundwork. With more than 50 participants (about half of them Village residents) each weekend, the racially balanced groups discussed local and global issues, such as implicit bias, white privilege, race as a social construct, and race as it relates to power dynamics in society.

Bennett has built bridges in racial consciousness, much of it across races into the Anglo community. Francie Peak, a longtime friend of Bennett’s, characterizes much of the Village as “do-gooders who are too often oblivious of their own prejudices and the lives of our African-American neighbors.”

Peak even points to her own blind spots, pointing out that before the efforts of PoC, she rarely had conversations about race with other whites.

“Whites rarely discuss race with other whites in any constructive manner,” she says, “and that’s what PoC’s Unity360 Dialogues do.”

One of the most interesting people I met at the second dialogue session was Rudy Jean-Bart, a professor of African-American history at Broward College who grew up in a Haitian household on the unincorporated periphery of Miami Shores. Jean-Bart attended Saint Rose of Lima, Miami Country Day, and eventually graduated from Archbishop Curley High School.

Living in the heavily immigrant and poorer minority unincorporated communities abutting Miami Shores, and then attending those elite, rigorous private schools in the Village was to “cross the street, and enter a new world” as Jean-Bart puts it.

Jean-Bart’s ability to thrive in both “worlds” probably facilitated his academic and social advancement. “Neighborhood doesn’t determine your destiny,” he bluntly states. He notes that when he was an adolescent, he was blissfully unaware of racial and social divisions. As he grew older, he became more cognizant, and explains how his St. Rose basketball coach fearfully sped off after giving him a lift to his house.

Jean-Bart notes that his unincorporated neighbors live in a unique bubble compared to the Shores residents who go about their own lives literally a stone’s throw away. In some respects, he sees the divide as a microcosm of the country. Two Americas, one organized, blessed with power and affluence. The other without.

The fact is, race is a social construct, something explored on the PoC’s first Saturday session (and in an effective three-minute vox.com video, The Myth of Race), and entirely a manmade creation. Consider, there’s no DNA test for race. Can you “prove” your race? If you were struck blind, would racial differences still exist?

It may all go back to the late 1700s, when the German scientist Johann Blumenbach created one of the first race-based classifications. He developed five categories: “Caucasian, the white race; Mongolian, the yellow race; Malayan, the brown race; Ethiopian, the black race, and American, the red race.” Each race was ranked, and he put Caucasian on top. This ranking was the impetus for centuries of discrimination and inequality.

One of the zaniest examples of racial confusion was with the 1920 U.S. Census, which deemed Americans of Mexican descent to be white. Then in 1930, the Census declared them as non-white. And come 1942, the Census switched them back to white. Fast forward to the 2000, and the Census had 15 categorical selections (including Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Filipino which all suspiciously sound like nationalities and then a catch-all “some other race”), and one gets some perspective how subjective race is.

Political, economic, and social motivations drove the creation of these largely artificial racial divisions. Hence our racism, bigotries, and prejudices are all too real, whereas race is our own creation. And maybe understanding of this -- that race is a social construct -- is the ultimate antidote to racism.

Ultimately, hate and ignorance are our only true enemies. We need to understand and reflect on prejudices, especially our own. Likewise we need to do a better job in understanding the lives of those with racist views, and understand the circumstances that led to their hatred. Only then will we be able to address the root causes of their prejudices. And therein lies our road to equality and salvation. Something even Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches achieved.

…I’m quite happy to say / The Sneetches got really quite smart on that day / The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches / And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.

 

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