Opinion: Inequities reflect subtle racism

September 30, 2013


It was the suddenness that shocked me.

This is one night 22 years ago. I had just moved to Miami and was visiting Coconut Grove for the first time. I remember being charmed. The side streets were lined with cozy bungalows. On the main streets there was light and music and an air of bohemia going upscale that made you want to linger and people-watch as women who looked as if they just stepped from the pages of Vogue were squired to and from nightclubs, restaurants and boutiques by handsome men in guayaberas.

Leaving, I drove west on Grand Avenue and ... bang. Just like that, I was in another place. Here, there was less light and no music, nor flocks of date-night couples, nor really anybody except a few guys standing around, silently marking my passage. The buildings rose shadowy and quiet in meager pools of illumination cast by street lights. These were not streets for lingering. These were streets for passing quickly through.

I didn’t know it then, but I was in West Grove, the hardscrabble, historically black area that abuts Coconut Grove. I had driven less than a mile — and ended up on the other side of the world.

Ever since that night, the two Groves have struck me as a vivid illustration of the stark dualities of race and class in a nation that likes to tell itself it has overcome the former and made immaterial the latter. If you’re one of those who still believes that fiction, consider this scenario: Dangerous levels of contaminants have been found in the soil of a residential neighborhood. What happens next?

Turns out — though not to the surprise of anyone who understood the fiction to be just that — that it depends very much upon race and class. Just days after the discovery of toxins in the soil of a park in Coconut Grove, residents were alerted, the park closed, the soil capped. All within the last few weeks.

Down the street on the other side of the world, it was a different story. There, in 2011, soil was found to be contaminated on the site of an incinerator — Old Smokey — that had belched ash into the air from the 1930s until it was closed in 1970.

County environmental officials ordered the city to find out if the contaminants posed a risk and draft a plan for dealing with it. They gave the city a 60-day deadline. The city missed it. They gave the city another deadline. It missed that, too.

Residents were told none of this, knew nothing about it, until the initial finding was unearthed this year — two years later — by a University of Miami researcher. Now we learn that city tests have found this land, which sits next to a park and a community center, to be chock full of poisons, among them arsenic, lead, and benzo(a)pyrene, a carcinogen.

Just days ago, officials declared the site is not a health risk. West Grove residents can perhaps be forgiven if they are skeptical.

People often profess to be confused when I write about systemic inequity. Absent the caricature of some guy in a pointy white hood, they can see no racism. Absent the cliche of some society lady with nose elevated and pinky extended, they have no conception of classism. They can understand these as individual failings, yes. But what in the world is systemic oppression?

Well, it is this, right here.

It is a child whose health is zealously safeguarded at one end of the street and a child who is allowed to play on soil saturated with carcinogens and heavy metals on the other. It is the city making a determination, albeit de facto, that the latter child’s life has less worth.

Shame on Miami for that.

Shame on us all. These inequities exist because we allow them, because we condone by our silence the two-tiered treatment and second-class citizenship of those who are not us. Well, in this country, people have the right to expect they will be treated as if they matter.

Even if they live along shadowed streets on the other side of the world.

— Leonard Pitts Jr.is a columnist for the Miami Herald.


50YearResident 4 years, 7 months ago

Must be "writers block", Leonard had to go back 22 years to find a possible racial event to complain about.

Seth Peterson 4 years, 7 months ago

Glad I'm not the only person who mentions this to him.

George Lippencott 4 years, 7 months ago

Are the Inequities caused by race or by income? Do they only correlate to race or do they correlate to education and capability among other possible causes.

High illegitimate birth rates do not help. Not understanding the need to show up for work does not help. Single parenthood does not help. Dropping out of school does not help.

What are the real causal factors and how can we collectively address them. Just throwing money is not the answer.

George Lippencott 4 years, 7 months ago

There are toxic fields all over the place. The EPA is trying to get them cleaned up. When there is no money the super fund applies. Why is this field unique? The answer appears to be because it is in a minority majority area of town. And at that point all my questions apply!

The article is not just about the field it is about to quote " didn’t know it then, but I was in West Grove, the hardscrabble, historically black area that abuts Coconut Grove. I had driven less than a mile — and ended up on the other side of the world.". I do not assume that applies just to the field.

George Lippencott 4 years, 7 months ago

The EPA sets standards. Those standards tend to fall on the side of caution. If some local pol make this pronouncement the EPA can overrule that decision. If the EPA made the decision or accepts it - it is probably correct.

Because somebody yells racism it does not make it so!

Mike Ford 4 years, 7 months ago

In Oklahoma the Ponca tribe has tried for some time to get a carbon black plant closed near Ponca City and Blackwell, Oklahoma. In states other than Oklahoma federally recognized tribes can apply to the EPA to get treatment as a sovereign state to make the entities around tribal lands adhere to tribal environmental standards much as the Sokaogon Band of Mole Lake Chippewa Tribe in Wisconsin did to the State of Wisconsin to protect the waters flowing in and out lakes where wild rice or mahnomen had grown for centuries. Not in Oklahoma though thanks to global warming denier extrordinaire US Senator James Inhofe who altered this process through a hidden congressional rider some years ago. The same can be said for the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma whose lands became part of a Tar Creek Superfund site due to lead mining in the early 20th century and in recent settlement issues on the land damages this tribe wasn't consulted. Or the New Jersey highlands of the Ramapough Munsee people whose lands were used as a dumping ground for chemicals by the Ford Motor Company. Racism does play a part in who gets fair treatment and who doesn't when it comes to the ethics of environment and economy. The South Lawrence Trafficway is a perfect example of this.

George Lippencott 4 years, 7 months ago

"The South Lawrence Trafficway is a perfect example of this." Really. There were two federal court reviews and a ten year plus review cycle. Seems to me that a fair hearing was provided. The fact that it did not go your way does not make it racist.

Your entire comment reflects efforts to try to balance competing interests. Does the only way racism is ruled out mean all such issue result in a win for the minority involved. By the by in almost all such confrontations it is a minority (just might be white) that is challenging a business or the government. I don't think the issue is limited to minorities (recognized or not)

hedshrinker 4 years, 7 months ago

@ Moderate: Your arguments about the cause of inequities (race or income) are problematic for me because it sounds like the classic "blame the victim" strategy which assumes if you are poor or rich it's b/c you caused it and deserve it solely by your actions which is simplistic and NOT true; what I DO know is that being poor, a racial/ethnic/religious minority , an immigrant or oppressed by reason of gender or sexuality increases the liklihood that you will live in an unsafe neighborhood w lousy schools, high , poor housing with a limited support system. Yes, there are Horatio Algier success stories that we Americans love to point to which show all things to be possible in America... unfortunately that is less likely in this day of ever-widening income disparity between rich and poor. The possibility of pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps is possible but I believe is less likely now than it ever has been. I suggest you read "A Hope in the Unseen" a biography of a smart youngBlack man from the worst public school in Wash DC who was ultimately able to win a scholarship to an Ivy League school, but who was depressed , overwhelmed, lonely and desperate and almost left or failed over and over b/c there was little in his early life that prepared him for being surrounded by privileged white kids with a bigger life experience and $$$$...in spite of having a supportive Mom and pastor. Also read "The Other Wes Moore" which was the mandatory freshman reading for many colleges showing the different lives of a middle class whte boy and his black counterpart....different history and ultimately different futures. On an ultimately happier outcome Sonya Sotomayor's memoir "My Beloved World" depicts the seemingly insurmountable odds she has been able to overcome as she has become a Supreme Court jurist, but at significant personal cost.
Most importantly, personal life trajectory (which is the red herring you threw out) is really irrelevant when we are discussing the inequities of POLITICAL decisions that have to do with politicians currying favor among people who are likely voters AND who are affluent enough to throw $$$ their way. These pols may give lip service to American class mobility and leveling the playing field of opportunity for all, but if you pay attention to how they actually vote, you will see what their real values are: pass policies which benefit those w SSS and who will vote for you. That usually means big corporate interests, captains of industry and does not include the poor. Money trumps everything in this day and time when our Congress daily must spend much time simply fundraising to finance the next campaign.This is why many of us support campaign finance reform and want to get rid of Citizens United ruling which has massively compounded the political mess.

George Lippencott 4 years, 7 months ago

Surprise, I do not substantially disagree. I also belieev my comments apply. You generalized and at that level we are copacetic.

The rich rule both parties. That said I am not volunteering to substantially reduce my standard of living to compensate for policies I have tried all my life to correct - and failed.

It has not escaped my notice that certain advocates do not care from whom they exact their penalty - they loosely blame all the non-poor.

WE also have a problem with who is poor. Subsidizing people earning the national average family income or more is just plain wrong. Resources should be directed at those who are really poor with a recognition that we will never move them into the upper half of the middle class because they can not compete at that level - although we can make the pain of poverty less. The fact that we spend close to a trillion dollars a year trying to do that - extracted primarily from those in the upper half of the middle class - suggests we are not heartless and that the problem may be more challenging then just throwing money.

AS far as who gets to spread what propaganda - all or nothing. I reject blocking those from the right while allowing those from the left free rein.

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