Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Behind Miami’s diversity gains, fissures and conflict

Miami Skyline from Thursday, April 19, 2012.
Miami Skyline from Thursday, April 19, 2012. El Nuevo Herald

In times of national racial conflict, Miami tries to isolate itself by holding up the banner of our model diversity like a shield.

We like to tell ourselves that we’re different from the rest of the United States. What happened in Ferguson and is now happening in Baltimore won’t happen here.

We’ve already lived through violent response to injustice — the destruction of property, the looting, and the anger unleashed by the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police — and we’ve tackled so many of the issues that led to the deadly Liberty City riots of 35 years ago.

All of that turmoil is behind us, we say, knocking on wood. We’re now an exemplary diverse community with access, representation and opportunity for all.

If you say it enough, you believe it — but there’s a great disconnect between how some of us see ourselves and our city, and how African Americans experience Miami.

“I challenge you to go out to where all those construction cranes are and look around and see how many of the people working on these projects look like me,” says Retha Boone-Fye, executive director of the Miami-Dade Black Affairs Advisory Board.

Not very many, I tell her, and more often than not, none at all.

“Exactly,” she says. “And when you see them, they’re the ones waving the [traffic] flag.”

No doubt gains made in the past three decades in race and ethnic parity are true and solid. But you don’t need to dig too deep to find fissures and conflict, to survey the economic disparity we’re always working on but are far from fixing, and the ever-present issue of deplorable police behavior.

While the unemployment rate in Miami-Dade for the general population hovers around 8 percent, for the African American community it’s much higher — an unacceptable 21 percent.

“And this doesn’t reflect the people who have just given up and aren’t reporting to the unemployment agency. People have gotten to the point where they just don’t feel it’s worth it,” says Boone-Fye, born and raised in Miami. “People simply cannot find a job.”

One of the reasons — and here is one of those fissures — is that so many jobs require Spanish-language skills, even when language isn’t a component of the job itself.

“A forklift operator bilingual? Give me a break,” Boone-Fye says — and she’s right.

Our bilingualism is one of our strengths, but it can also be used as a barrier to inclusion.

The solution to this disparity is in the hands of the education system. Our public school system should provide Spanish-language instruction to all children, not just Hispanic children.

“That is a personal pet peeve of mine,” Boone-Fye says. “I’ve talked to the superintendent about it. I’ve written letters. We think it should be mandatory for our kids to be given second-language instruction from kindergarten at least to fifth grade, otherwise when they graduate they do so with limited possibilities. It puts our kids at a disadvantage.”

Boone-Fye laments the loss of community leaders like the late Georgia Ayers, who lived in the thick of things in the community, commanded respect and told it like it is whether she was talking to a politician, a journalist or a wayward youth.

“We don’t have that type of leadership right now and what is replacing it is social media,” she says. “And that’s what fueled what happened in Baltimore, boredom and no jobs, and spreading the word along social media, ‘this is how we are going to do it.’”

This vocal, connected generation demands action and results — and like every other community in the country, Miami-Dade needs to be more proactive and get in front of the issues.

More than talking during the news cycle when an American city burns, we need to do more to make things more equitable and to lift barriers for others. Making quality bilingual education available to inner city children is a start.

Wearing the proud shield of diversity only goes so far.