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'There's A Lot Of Denialism': How An Anti-Racism Proposal Exposed Miami's Racial, Ethnic Fractures

Pedro Portal
Miami Herald
A protest against systemic racism in Coconut Grove earlier this month. The current reckoning over racial injustice set off a tense debate at the Miami-Dade County School Board.

A plan to improve how public schools in Miami-Dade County teach students about racism drew a racist backlash last week — a response that reflected a long history of denying anti-Black prejudice in a place where race relations are more complicated than Black and white.

The Miami-Dade County school board voted 8-1 to approve a plan directing the district’s administration to review its curriculum on racism and multiculturalism, enhance or develop lessons on anti-racism and empower a student task force to tackle the issue. Leading up to the vote, the school board was flooded with hundreds of calls and messages opposing the plan, including some that were riddled with misinformation and fear-mongering.

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Some emails explicitly equated the proposal to communism or accused board members of trying to indoctrinate children, like Fidel Castro did in Cuba. Copied-and-pasted warnings about the proposal that circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp were just lies: They said the school board wanted to require a curriculum developed by Black Lives Matter activists and that it would include teaching about homosexuality and transgender issues.

Describing the more than 200 comments and 400 phone calls they received, School Board Chair Perla Tabares Hantman said: “To be very, very conversative, I would say 70 percent or 80 percent of the time, it was all total misinformation and offensive to the board members.

“I’m anything but naive or innocent, but I am very, very surprised by what has happened,” she said.

Some of the emailed comments, obtained by WLRN through a public records request, were blatantly racist.

“I do not want anyone in school teaching our children about this garbage,” according to an e-mail from one commenter.

One said: “Spend our monies in teaching children about real American history.”

Another said: “Enough with these new social issues, they are only damaging the students mind. just take a look at who does the protests, their age, what they look like, what they do for a living.”

Several messages suggested that the election of President Barack Obama or the wealth of Black celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and LeBron James proved that anti-Black racism was no longer relevant.

One of the emails became personal, directly addressing the proposal’s Black sponsor, School Board Member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall.

Bendross-Mindingall was elected to the board six decades after she was a victim of one of the school district’s most egregious, racist acts. In 1947, the school board and the city of Miami evicted dozens of Black families, including hers,from their homes in the Railroad Shop Addition neighborhood. They took the land by eminent domain, under pressure from racist white neighbors and community leaders, and built an all-white school.

The e-mail in response to her proposal said: “We are a multicultural community, we do NOT present systemic racism, it is totally FALSE. We believe that you are hurt. Don’t mix your feelings about something that happened … to you many years ago. You have NOT been limited to getting to where you are today, at the Miami-Dade Commission on Education.”

[There is] a long tradition of celebrating Miami as this kind of multicultural melting pot, but celebrating it uncritically and without much of a sense of Miami's very fraught history with regard to race and ethnic relations. - Michael Bustamante, FIU professor

Some of the comments were in Spanish. Many of the commenters’ names were of Hispanic or Latino descent or origin. The emails show that even people who have suffered from racism themselves can harbor similar prejudices against others, especially Black people.

“There's a long tradition of celebrating Miami as this kind of multicultural melting pot, but celebrating it uncritically and without much of a sense of Miami's very fraught history with regard to race and ethnic relations,” said Michael Bustamante, a Cuban American history professor at Florida International University who specializes in Cuban history and that of Cubans in the U.S.

“There's a lot of denialism on this history: The anti-Black biases, prejudices that are kind of baked into Latin American cultures that folks bring with them from their countries of origin, that are then passed down through generations, that are then reinforced by the experience of living in a city that is very much residentially segregated, certainly along Black and non-Black lines,” he said.

The racial and ethnic fractures in Miami-Dade were on full display not only in the public response to the anti-racism education proposal but also in the school board’s own debate.

Marta Pérez, who is Cuban American, is the only school board member who voted against the proposal, arguing Miami-Dade schools are already doing enough to address racism.

“In my opinion, this school district is a shining example, throughout the years, of inclusion in all matters, including race, ethnicity, disabilities, et cetera,” she said during a committee meeting earlier this month, when the board first discussed the proposal. “If there has ever been a wrong, we have stepped up and corrected it very, very quickly.”

Pérez's comments were in response to Bendross-Mindingall, despite the deep injustices her Black colleague endured as a child at the hands of the racist school board in 1947.

“I’m the little girl who was put out of my house at three years old in the rain so that they could build a school,” Bendross-Mindingall said later during that meeting, seemingly in response to Pérez. “How dare you? How dare you? It didn’t stop there.”

Credit Al Diaz / Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Miami-Dade School Board Member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall proposed the anti-racism curriculum that was recently approved by the school board.

And, of course, it didn’t. Like many school districts throughout the country, Miami-Dade County Public Schools was under a federal desegregation order until the early 2000s.

Bustamante, the FIU professor, said it amazes him that the Miami history of Cuban exiles arriving in waves and the Civil Rights struggle are told separately as if they’re unrelated, when in actuality they intersect.

Miami was in the Jim Crow South, and so even though Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, the schools hadn’t meaningfully desegregated by the early 1960s.

“There were black schools; there were white schools. And in the ’60s, Cuban children who, in Cuba, very clearly, their families saw themselves as white, but may have been seen as off-white or other — they find themselves being allowed, sort of in a de facto way, to go to white schools,” Bustamante said. “And so African Americans watching this happen — Brown v. Board has been passed, but the schools still haven't been desegregated — they're saying, ‘What's going on here?’”

Another example: In the 1970s, Cuban exile parents were among those who protested busing for integrating schools.

Some of the public comments about the proposal for anti-racism education in Miami-Dade suggested conversations about racism should happen at home, not at school.

Credit Jessica Bakeman / WLRN
Miami-Dade school board members at a previous meeting.

Dwight Bullard said that thinking is misguided.

Bullard, who is Black, taught U.S. history — including Black history — in Miami-Dade public schools for 17 years. He’s also a former state senator and now a progressive political leader.

“Those conversations can and will be happening in places like school cafeterias and school classrooms, just like they've been happening for decades now,” Bullard said.

He said teachers should be guiding students’ conversations about social issues like racism, helping them understand the historical context. He said ignoring students’ struggles with their racial identity — as well as their socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or gender identity — hurts their mental health and even contributes to peer-to-peer violence.

He said the focus on anti-racism in Miami-Dade schools is long overdue.

“Being anti-racist means that you are actively pushing back against those systems of oppression that have kept people down for so long,” he said.

Paul Ortiz, a history professor at the University of Florida, offers anti-racist history workshops around the country, including with Hispanic or Latino communities in South Florida.

He’s gotten a lot more interest lately.

“I can no longer keep up with the calls and the requests from churches, synagogues, mosques, youth groups, unions … asking me to come in and facilitate an anti-racist history workshop,” he said.

“The Black Lives Matter movement has definitely created new openings for us to have more honest conversations,” he said. “But I can promise you, they won't be easy, especially initially.”

He feels hopeful, though, that when people learn more about this country’s history — and for immigrants, the histories of the countries their own families come from — those conversations will get a little easier.

“That's going to really help us get these kind of hidden traumas out into the open, so we can talk about them and heal them,” he said.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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