Miami’s image of a multicultural melting pot of Caribbean and Latin American cultures, all co-existing together in an idyllic setting of palm trees and warm beaches hides a deeper history of Black disenfranchisement and state-sponsored population transplantation, unprecedented in American history.
The area’s first black community was settled by Bahamians in the 1880’s, well before the incorporation of the city in 1896. It was called Coconut Grove then, as it is now, and provided many of the black male registered votes used to reach the required quota for the official creation of Miami. Slave-descended Black Americans and other Afro-Caribbean groups were likewise used for the same purpose. All were subsequently stripped of their voting rights, as the region was transformed into an international metropolitan hub and Jim Crow laws spread throughout the South during the early part of the 20th century.
Black labor was the primary source of man power used to build Flagler’s pivotal railroad and to develop the earliest farming settlements, which would make South Florida the breadbasket of America. As the country emerged out of World War II, “benign tools of segregation” began to replace the violent lynch laws, and racist zoning practices started to carve out the real estate along the skin color line. Overtown, a thriving enclave of black culture in the middle of the city known as “The Harlem of the South” and with 45% of Miami’s black population, was bisected by the construction of I-95 - along with many other black and minority neighborhoods across the nation - as part of Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system.
In order to build the massive vehicular artery, the government invoked eminent domain, seizing the land and property of black businesses and homes, displacing over 40,000 people in the 1960’s. The livelihoods of hundreds of “black doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, entertainers and hotel owners” were destroyed, as a result.
Simultaneously, the federal government was implementing a population transplant operation from a Caribbean nation just 90 miles away from Miami, which had been snatched away from the entrenched, mob-affiliated political class by a bearded revolutionary, who was just beginning his 5-decade tenure as America’s most iconic nemesis.
Mayflower of the Caribbean
The first wave of Cuban immigrants, that touched South Florida shores are collectively referred to as the “Golden Exiles”. Arriving between 1959 and 1962, 31% of the Cubans who came to the United States during this period were educated professionals with resources. Many already had bank accounts in the U.S. and further benefited from extensive help from the American government, unprecedented in scope and generosity.
The Cuban Refugee Program assisted the exiles with resettlement, job training, housing and education programs to the tune of US$ 1 Billion in those early years. In addition, they benefited from special business loans and accreditation of their foreign-earned degrees. The program continued for decades and US$ 3 Billion more were invested through 1996.
Policies like affirmative action also gave Cuban arrivals a leg up at the expense of Black Americans, reducing the latter community’s already shrinking employment opportunities in Miami.
After the “Golden” wave of immigrants, the second stage consisted of mostly middle-class, mostly white Cubans, who were able to take advantage of the groundwork laid by their immediate predecessors as part of a so-called “ethnic economy”. The transformation of the city’s demographics was well underway. By the 1970’s, the relentless Cuban exodus would overtake the Black population as the second largest in the city, behind White Americans.
The McDuffie Riots was a watershed moment for Miami. Sparked by the acquittal of all 7 police officers indicted in the killing of African-American accountant, Arthur McDuffie, the violence expressed a subconscious recognition of a changing of the guard, literally.
The MPD officers who were involved in the incident with McDuffie on the morning hours of December 17, 1979 were White Americans, except for one. Alex Marrero, the officer who beat Arthur McDuffie to death, was Cuban.
In the most macabre way possible, this signaled the success of the Cuban exiles’ political and economic ascent. Aided by the generous hand of the state, they had firmly established themselves among the higher rungs of the city’s pecking order and were beginning to take hold of several seats in municipal governments.
A new swell of Cuban migrants would soon flood the streets of Miami, but this group occupied a far different social stratum than their state-side cousins and looked more like Arthur McDuffie than Ricky Ricardo. Unlike their predecessors, who had come in through the customs gate at the airport after a short flight on Pan American Airlines, the latest arrivals were processed like cattle by the Coast Guard.
The Mariel Boatlift dropped tens of thousands of Cubans on South Florida shores in 1981. Many were sent to different parts of the country as the sheer number of people became unmanageable for a single city. Carter sent thousands of “Marielitos” to Arkansas, then governed by Bill Clinton, who blamed the loss in his 1982 reelection bid on the influx.
Although the Mariel Cubans also received special assistance by the federal government, it was a fraction - in dollar terms - of what the first two groups enjoyed. It was, nevertheless, a king’s ransom compared to the roughly 80,000 Haitians who had taken refuge in Miami during the same period, who instead of getting help were looked upon as a drain on public resources.
The Politics of Color
A recent study entitled “The Color of Wealth in Miami” takes a deep dive into the economic reality of the various ethnic groups, nationalities and races that comprise the residents of Miami-Dade County, revealing a stark picture of racial marginalization and an economically segregated population.
Ranking 8th among the poorest regions in the nation and 3rd least affordable metropolitan area according to HUD, Miami-Dade County presents one of the country’s biggest disparities of wealth-inequality, which the data shows is heavily skewed by skin color, irrespective of ancestral origin.
Latinos comprise 65% of the population, far and away the largest in the County. Of these, Cubans are the most numerous, representing 18.4%. The rest are broadly spread out among Colombians, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, as well as many other Latin American nationalities in smaller groups. West Indian and Afro-Caribbean immigrants such as Haitians, Jamaicans and Trinidadians and Tobagonians add up to about 8%. African-Americans (non-Latino Blacks) in Miami-Dade County come out to roughly 7%. Non-Latino Whites in the Miami area comprise only 33%, almost half than their numbers in the state as a whole.
The median wealth gap between Whites and other ethnic groups in Miami is incredibly wide. Calculated at around US$ 107,000 on average for White households, the closest group was the Cubans, who nonetheless hold just US$ 22,000 median household wealth or about 20% of the median household wealth of Whites. Puerto Ricans, for example, report a negative US$ -3,940 median wealth position.
The study analyzes differences and relationships between income, wealth, education and race as they pertain to Miami-Dade County, and finds that people who self-report as White (Latino or otherwise), tend to show better socio-economic indicators than their Black and Latino counterparts. One of the most telling observations is how Cubans, Colombians and Dominicans who self-identified as White “did not report substantially higher rates of college educational attainment than their co-ethnic counterparts who racially identify as Black. But they did report substantially higher incomes.”
Home ownership is, likewise, one of the clearest signs of Miami’s wealth-inequality with nearly 71% of non-Latino Whites owning homes, followed by Cubans, Colombians and Dominicans who self-identify as White with approximately 53%, 49% and 47% home-ownership rates, respectively. Among black Miamians, home-ownership rates are between 40 and 60% lower, regardless of nationality.
A home, of course, is the most basic economic anchor there is. The difference between having a stable place to live and raise a family and not can determine a person’s future economic success. From education to employment opportunities, there are many variables this one factor can influence during the course of our lives. In Miami, non-white home-ownership has been under attack by speculators and irresponsible government. And climate change is about to make it worse.
The Last Wave
The 2008 crash left thousands of Miami’s most vulnerable in a very tenuous position, after foreclosure affected 1 in 14 homes by the end of 2009. Real estate developers, encouraged by local leaders, have since returned with a vengeance and are aggressively targeting low-income, minority communities who happen to live on the higher ground elevations of the County.
Sea-level rise and the constant risk posed by an ever-more active hurricane season, coupled with rampant property speculation and gentrification represents a serious threat to the already frail socio-economic fabric of Miami, which could devolve into widespread violence of the kind the city experienced almost forty years ago.
According to a report issued by The JP Morgan Chase Institute on the “financial implications of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma”, the inflow of checking accounts of both businesses and individuals in the wake of the natural disasters fell 20% below baseline. Of the two cities, Miami showed a slower rate of recovery than Houston.
The precarious financial position of the majority of Miami’s residents, with 51% of households lacking enough cash to survive more than three months in the case of an emergency, along with predatory real estate developers salivating over their land should raise all sorts of red flags.
During preparations for Hurricane Irma, tens of thousands of people from low-income communities were evacuated as part of a county-wide operation unlike any that had ever been attempted. Many weren’t even in an evacuation zone, yet were urged to flee to a number of improvised shelters throughout the county. After the storm, thousands lined up to receive D-SNAP aide, because they had no cash on hand to replenish their refrigerators.
A majority of Miami stands on the brink of financial annihilation as a result of decades of racist policies. The Pew Research Center ranked Miami 10th in the nation among economically segregated cities, close to doubling its “Residential Income Segregation Index Score” of 30 in 1980 to 49 in 2010. Only certain Latino groups have experienced some relative level of economic mobility. It’s no accident, perhaps, that these are also the same groups who play a role in the goals of American foreign policy in Latin America: Cubans, Venezuelans and Colombians.
In recent years, the mayors of four South Florida counties signed an emergency plan that contemplates mass evacuations and other crisis measures in the case of sea-level rise. Given the history, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to assume that our County and city leaders would take advantage of a climate-related crisis like this to dislodge people from their homes, counting on the fact that they couldn’t afford to come back.