North Miami mayor candidate Kevin Burns was lamenting the city’s privatized garbage services when he reached for an example he thought the mostly Haitian audience could relate to at a recent candidate forum.
“If you’ve seen your garbage pickup lately, it looks like the drivers of the garbage trucks had too much Barbancourt rum,” said Burns, dropping the name of Haiti’s popular rum brand.
Almost immediately, Lucie Tondreau, one of five Haitian-American candidates running for mayor, jumped up to the mic and took Burns, the lone white person in the race, to task.
To “say they have been drinking too much Barbancourt rum is an offense to me and my community,” Tondreau said.
In any other city, Burns’s comment might be shrugged off.
But this is North Miami, where simmering tensions between the growing Haitian population and long-time white residents, have boiled over recently.
Where a recent council meeting dissolved into a crowd of Haitian-American and white residents shouting, “You’re racist” across the aisle at one another. Where residents allege there are anti-white campaigns on Creole-language radio. Where a slow-speed car chase by the mayor’s wife, pursuing her husband’s alleged campaign sign thief, led to her being called the n-word.
With election season in full swing, the perennial topics of lower taxes and public safety have taken a back seat to a loftier goal: unifying the city.
“It’s the East side — the white side, versus the black side — the West side,” said Joseph Haber, who is running for the District 2 council seat. “We need to bring unity back to community.”
Lost amid the political infighting and allegations of racism are the issues voters care about, said resident Judy Feldman.
“There’s very little discourse going on,” said Feldman. “It’s infuriating. For the most part it’s B.S. and puffery. ”
The discord didn’t happen overnight.
North Miami, the fifth-largest city in Miami-Dade County, used to be predominantly white.
According to the 1990 Census, the white population made up 63 percent of the city and blacks accounted for 32 percent.
By 2010, the city’s black population had grown to 59 percent and its white population had dwindled to 32 percent, according to the 2010 Census. Observers attribute a large part of the growing black community to upwardly mobile Haitian families who left Little Haiti for more suburban neighborhoods.
The Census estimates that Haitians make up roughly a third of North Miami’s population.
In many ways, North Miami is an immigrant community’s dream realized.
“The Haitian community has a voice. Years ago we didn’t have that power, we didn’t have the force,” said resident Gernier Origene. “In Little Haiti there was crime and a lot of craziness. North Miami is the new and better Little Haiti.”
He added, “The white people don’t like to hear that.”
The city is represented by a Haitian majority council. The Haitian-born mayor, Andre Pierre, is joined by two other Haitian-Americans on the five-member council. Haitian-Americans hold high-ranking positions at city hall — police chief, finance director and city attorney.