Guest column: This opinion piece was written by Jordana Hart, a cofounder of SFPOC and a facilitator of the Unity360 Community Race Dialogues and the Awkward Dinner series, and by Roni Bennett, the executive director and cofounder of SFPOC. Visit southfloridapoc.org to learn more about their organization.
What does it mean when white and Latinx people, intent on shedding their anti-black biases, forgo events at black churches and other black-controlled spaces even when these events are meant to help them on their journey to becoming more racially literate?
This conundrum is testing the multiracial Miami-based South Florida People of Color (SFPOC), whose mission is to provide "opportunities for open dialogue and personal connections across the racial and ethnic divide." Having just completed the last event in our three-part series Race in Retrospect (RIR), we face the uncomfortable truth that some of our white and Latinx followers are noticeably absent at events held in spaces or neighborhoods that are black-controlled or perceived as such — spaces "governed by black bodies," as Ibram X. Kendi, an American University professor of history and international relations, puts it in his new book, How to Be an Antiracist.
RIR is meant to take black, white, and Latinx South Floridians on a journey together through Florida's virulently anti-black history and show its embedded effects today. The series comprised three lectures by Florida historians of color at the Betsy Hotel in Miami Beach, each followed by a paired community race dialogue at a church or library. The powerhouse historians included Dr. Tameka Bradley Hobbs, associate provost at Florida Memorial University and author of Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home: Racial Violence in Florida; Dr. Paul Ortiz, associate professor of history at the University of Florida and author of An African American and Latinx History of the United States; and Dr. Marvin Dunn, a retired chairman of the department of psychology at Florida International University and the author of works such as his latest, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes.
Talking racism and white supremacy across the racial and ethnic divide is deeply daunting, yet it is the true first step toward breaking racial barriers, testing our comfort zones, and ultimately building empathy. We learn through these interracial and intraracial dialogues that becoming an anti-racist requires "persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination," as Kendi writes. Words matter, but so do the venues where these conversations occur. In the end, who's not at the table speaks volumes.
As a matter of routine, we are not even in the same room, let alone at the same table. The Public Religion Research Institute showed in a 2014 study that blacks had ten times as many black friends as white friends, but whites had 91 times as many white friends as black friends. So if and when we talk race, we are largely talking to people who look like us, an uphill battle when SFPOC wants everyone in the room when it comes to dismantling white supremacy, prejudice, and bias.
Codified legal segregation in the United States largely ended in the '60s. Yet the intent behind civil rights laws — to enforce equity, fairness, and justice — has yet to penetrate the hearts and minds of many white and Latinx people. Drive by Miami schools and through neighborhoods, and you see utter racial segregation reminiscent of past legal apartheid. The law no longer requires us to separate, so why do we persist in self-segregating, even at events such as RIR meant to help us learn, question, and change?
Whites might not consciously move to a place because it is white, Richard Benjamin, author of Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America, wrote in Forbes in 2009. Segregation, he explains, does not require active racial animus. Now it results from purportedly race-neutral "habits, policies, and institutions" no longer explicitly designed to discriminate, yet their impact is just as divisive, discriminatory, and wretched. Racial segregation, Benjamin says, is a "de facto fixture of American life" that "impoverishes our understanding of each other."
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We routinely hear people describe neighborhoods and schools as "good" or "bad" or even "gentrifying," purportedly based on property values, tidiness, safety, and comfort. We might have even said it ourselves. The truth is that these otherwise nonracial descriptors are proxies for race and class, and most often specifically for white or black. Think Liberty City, Miami Shores, Overtown, Kendall, Brickell, Brownsville, Wynwood, Miami Gardens, and Coconut Grove — what comes to mind?
If you are white or Latinx, you were likelier to attend the RIR lynching history lecture with Hobbs in August at the Betsy Hotel than her paired race dialogue at the Universal Truth Center for Better Living, a black Miami Gardens church whose mission is to empower "diverse ethnic and cultural communities." Whites and Latinxs attended both the Betsy lecture and paired race dialogue with Ortiz last month at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, a largely white church a mile or so outside of the historically black West Grove. Comparatively fewer white and Latinx people participated in the paired race dialogue this past Saturday with Dunn at the Arcola Lakes Branch Library in a majority-black district of West Little River.
"The idea of a dangerous black neighborhood is one of the most dangerous racist ideas," Kendi writes in his latest book. "Just as racist power racializes people, racist power racializes space. The ghetto. The inner city. The third world." Kendi says a space is racialized when a racial group "is known to either govern the space or make up the clear majority." A black space is one run by black people or where they are in the majority. President Donald Trump has propelled the racist idea of danger and degradation in black spaces. "We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-Americans, Hispanics, living in hell because it's so dangerous," Trump said in a presidential debate in 2016. He described black and Latinx immigrants in 2018 as coming from "shithole countries."
In choosing locations for our events, SFPOC embraces black spaces as vital to our mission for many reasons, one of which is to challenge white and Latinx people to step momentarily into the potential discomfort of being a "minority" in a black majority presence. For those on their path to confronting and unlearning white privilege and bias, experiencing black authority, as well as black welcome and embrace, is the intersection where racialized fear and bias can begin to melt away.