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Miami's Continuing Color Problem

Cubans vs. Haitians, Haitians vs. Cubans, African Americans vs. everybody else. Race relations in Miami have always been a tense affair. But are they getting better? The final chapter in The Root's series exploring black life in the 3-0-5.

A Miami police officer makes an arrest while patrolling the streets
in August 2010. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

When I left Miami in 1992, headed for a new job in Philadelphia, the wind was figuratively, if not literally, at my back. It was just days after Hurricane Andrew, the fourth-strongest hurricane to strike the U.S., badly pummeled south Florida and left a trail of destruction in its wake.

I was not just fleeing the battered city; I was also fleeing its festering racial tensions that seemed like permanent fixtures back then. The hurricane did little to dismantle this persistent problem that prompted young black professionals -- including me and other black reporters working at the Miami Herald -- to seek opportunities in friendlier, seemingly more progressive cities.

There were too many police shootings of unarmed black men in Miami for my taste, and in the prior decade, one of the most notorious police shootings had led to violent riots. There was not a visible black middle-class community, although middle-class blacks were scattered about, but there were plenty of visibly poor and badly deteriorated black neighborhoods. African Americans were mostly politically marginalized and had even less economic power.

Cuban Americans -- many of them fair-skinned "white" conservative Republicans, uninterested in power sharing -- were politically ascendant. (Afro-Cubans and other Afro-Latinos, for the most part, blended into the African-American community.) Non-Hispanic white residents were fleeing Dade County and heading to whiter suburbs in northern counties.

Newly arrived Haitian refugees were routinely being mistreated by police and scapegoated as the source of many of the city's problems. And the growing Haitian immigrant community was having its own power struggles with the established American-born black community. I'd had enough. 

As a former New Yorker, I was accustomed to living in a sophisticated, multicultural city, not one that was multicultural only in tourist brochures. People who had never lived in Miami didn't understand why I left the fun and sun of the city made famous by Crockett and Tubbs. I'd remind them that despite its tropical weather and appearance, Miami was still the Deep South -- and often behaved like it.

What's more, a black economic boycott of the city's tourism industry was in its second year. A group of civic-minded black leaders had called for the boycott after the Miami City Commission rescinded a proclamation welcoming Nelson Mandela to the city during his tour of the U.S. after his historic release from prison in South Africa. The city's Cuban-American mayor and four other Cuban-American mayors from the region had publicly criticized Mandela for not denouncing human rights violations in Cuba.

It was a slap in the face to Mandela and to black Miamians who were thrilled about his visit and wanted him welcomed with open arms. As far as I was concerned, the boycott was long overdue. It lasted three years, cost the city millions, and drew national and international media attention, laying bare Miami's raw racial politics for all to see.

"I think overall things are better," says Joe Oglesby, the former editorial page editor of the Miami Herald. "Things had been so bad for so long that now that we've reached a relative stasis, it seems far better. There are blacks in very important positions that they weren't in 10, 15 years ago. A lot of this is invisible to most people, but they're here."

Meanwhile, the widely publicized relocations of NBA stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami created a lot of excitement and buzz about the city's new, high-profile black millionaires and their entourages of famous black friends and beautiful black actresses. However, James and Bosh's status as the Miami Heat's new "Dream Team," along with Dwyane Wade, has little in common with that of ordinary black Miamians.