As Obama takes the stage, racial politics turns more complex

Posted in Tolerance , United States | 20-Aug-08 | Author: Daniel Williams| Source: International Herald Tribune

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

MIAMI: Between salsa tunes, Spanish-language radio station La Kalle 98.3 FM in Miami broadcast a purported horoscope for Rudolph Crew, the black schools superintendent who is under fire from Hispanic politicians.

After noting that Crew's stars looked bad, an announcer on the Aug. 6 program said he had gained weight. A second announcer said it was probably because Crew likes fried chicken.

The stereotype, often used as a slur against blacks, reflects a racial and ethnic clash that provides a possible preview of America's future. As the Democratic Party prepares to nominate Senator Barack Obama of Illinois as its first black candidate for president, there is much talk about the United States moving beyond black-white conflicts. If the battle over Crew's job is any guide, those conflicts are being elbowed aside by more complicated enmities as the concept of "majority" and "minority" populations disappears.

"The passage from white dominance does not guarantee harmony," says Thomas Boswell, a geographer and demographic researcher at the University of Miami. "Indeed, it may create tensions just as complex as when the white-black divide was the country's outstanding problem."

Miami-Dade County has been in the vanguard of the shift away from white domination, most recently discussed on a national scale when the Census Bureau predicted that non-Hispanic whites would be outnumbered by 2042.

Fifty years ago, whites dominated the area demographically, politically and economically. Blacks were second-class citizens; and Cubans, the leading edge of Hispanic immigration, were only just beginning to arrive, fleeing the new Communist rulers.

These exiles and their offspring have been in political and economic ascendancy ever since. Hispanics make up 60 percent of Miami-Dade's 2.4 million people. Within that group, about 50 percent are of Cuban stock, Boswell says. Other Latin American immigrants - from Colombia, Venezuela, Central America, Peru, even as far afield as Argentina - make up the rest.

Twenty percent of Miami-Dade's residents are black, 18 percent are classified as non-Hispanic whites, and the rest are Asians and other racial and ethnic groups.

Occasional black rioting has been directed at Hispanics, and street gangs are often aligned along racial and ethnic lines. Complaints by non-Spanish speakers that jobs are hard to find have contributed to the flight of both blacks and non-Hispanic whites out of the county, Boswell says.

According to a study by Miami's Florida International University last year, 30 percent of Dade County's black population was planning to leave for opportunity elsewhere. Among them are middle-class blacks, creating a "brain drain" in the community, says the study's author, Dario Moreno.

"Everyone wants a piece of the pie, and no one is focusing on making a better pie," says Mario Artecona, executive director of the Miami Business Forum, a community advisory organization.

When the school board hired Crew in 2004, Artecona says the move signaled that a non-Hispanic could hold a major position in Miami-Dade, the fourth-largest U.S. school district after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Five of the board's nine members were Cuban-American, two were white and two were black.

Crew, whose contract expires in 2010, was a former chancellor of the New York City school system. In Miami-Dade, he introduced changes that improved student performance on state test scores for 2008. Last February, the American Association of School Administrators named him National Superintendent of the Year.

Nonetheless, he ran afoul of some Cuban-American politicians. In 2006, he accused state Republican Representative Ralph Arza, 48, of failing to get enough money for Dade County schools from the Legislature. After four public officials accused Arza of calling Crew a "nigger," he resigned, even though he denied the accusation.

That same year, Crew successfully fought efforts by Cuban-American politicians to ban from school libraries a children's book on Cuba. The politicians said the book glossed over repression under the Castro government.

This month, Crew survived a campaign by four Cuban-American board members to fire him over cuts he ordered in the budget. Blacks and non-Hispanic whites in the community lined up to support Crew during the meeting when the 5-to-4 vote took place.

If Crew's name were Cruz, "we wouldn't be here today," said Walter Richardson, a black preacher from the Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in south Miami-Dade County, according to a transcript of the session.

Before the vote, Crew called the effort a "high-tech lynching," words Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas used during his tumultuous 1991 Senate nomination fight over whether he sexually harassed a colleague, Anita Hill. A Crew spokesman rejected requests for an interview.

Even after the meeting, Spanish-language radio stations assaulted Crew's reputation. During the La Kalle broadcast, one of the announcers noted that some people said Crew was qualified for his job because he had written books. Hitler wrote books, too, the other announcer said.

In answer to an e-mail requesting a comment on the Hitler and fried-chicken remarks, Monica Talan, vice president of Univision Communications, the New York corporation that owns the radio station, said, "We have no comment."

"Black people viewed the attack on Crew as an offense against a qualified black man," says Bradford Brown, first vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Miami. "It was a message that we have no place here. It greatly increased tensions."

Some criticism of Crew - that he is aloof, talks down to Hispanics and is arrogant - parallels critiques of Obama, Brown says.

"If Obama is post-racial, Miami isn't there yet."