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 A group of civic-minded black leaders had called for the boycott after the Miami City Commission rescinded a proclamation welcoming Nelson Mandela to the city during his tour of the U.S. after his historic release from prison in South Africa.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.
While Miami is "much more intelligent, sophisticated and cosmopolitan" than it used to be, black residents as a whole are not much more powerful, Oglesby says. Hispanics are now an even larger majority — they make up 60 percent of the population. (The majority are Cubans, but there are also significant numbers of Nicaraguans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Puerto Ricans, Argentineans, Ecuadoreans, Brazilians and Dominicans.) Hispanics control most of the major government agencies, including the school board, the police department and other institutions. While this may be good for the Latino community, it doesn't necessarily empower the non-Latino black community.
Vanessa Woodard Byers, creator of bloggingblackmiami.com, could not agree more. She says that even as she has watched Haitian Americans gain more political ground, she has also seen "blacks as a whole in Miami lose a lot of power."
"The black communities that we once had are not really the same," she says. "Many of the black professionals have moved out of the area, so that's been a bit devastating to the community. A good bit of the history of the community is being lost as the black areas are gentrifying and historic neighborhoods and buildings are being lost. There's not really a black Miami now."
As for race relations, she says, "There's too much ethnic polarization for me. Sometimes it's about race, but a lot of times it's about economics — who has money and who doesn't."
Woodard Byers says that Miami's growing reputation as an international hub of wealthy Latin American immigrants and rich American movie stars and basketball players has not helped bring people together. "It has added so much focus on bling and not enough on the development of community itself," she says, adding that this is partly why she started her blog.
Meanwhile, serious social problems remain. Black men are still being killed by police in disproportionate numbers, and black-community members are still demanding to know why.
Bill Diggs, president and CEO of the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce, which represents 550 black-owned businesses, believes that the city's growing black middle class will change that reality. In addition, he says, the Cuban-American power structure is changing.
"I think the level of influence of the Cuban old guard is beginning to dissipate," he says. "The second and third generations of Cubans are much more Americanized and much more apt to embrace diversity. They are more open to what we can do to help one another. Our chamber has a strong and growing relationship with the Latin chambers out there. There's an embracing of cultures, if you will. We attend their events and they attend ours."
The economic gap is still wide, however. "Our constant fight is getting access to government contracts," Diggs says. "There is still a tremendous disparity with black businesses' ability to do business here."
He cites Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation's fourth-largest school system, as an example. Less than 2 percent of the school system's business goes to black vendors, even though black residents are 22 percent of the city's population. That percentage has not changed in 23 years, Diggs says.
Still, there's no denying that there has been progress.
Eduardo J. Padrón, president of Miami Dade College, said that it took a lot of work and commitment for the city to get where it is. He was part of a committee of community leaders who worked to build bridges after the 1980 riots.
"There was recognition by leading members of all of Miami's ethnic groups that something had to change," he said in an e-mail, adding that the city's relatively new and disparate populations made for a "fragile community."
"One of the keys to the progress over these many years has been the awareness by all concerned that as Hispanics gained greater opportunity and leadership roles, a concerted effort needed to be made to ensure that African Americans also had access to those same economic, educational and civic opportunities," Padrón wrote. "This was and remains a critical aspect of the community's progress."
I now live in Washington, D.C., home of the nation's first black president and other black political and economic powerbrokers. The region has some of the wealthiest, most educated blacks in the country. Needless to say, I haven't started packing my bags for a move back to Miami.
After years of traveling back to south Florida to visit family, however, I've developed a soft spot for the place where I cut my teeth as a reporter chronicling a city in transition and observing the slow, hard work of racial reconciliation. Like other cities across the country, Miami remains a work in progress. I may just yet consider retiring there — when I'm 90.
Marjorie Valbrun is a regular contributor to The Root.