Leaders See Race Relations Worsening Blacks in Florida Angered, Energized

Article excerpt

TALLAHASSEE -- A year ago, more than 10,000 people ushered in the 2000 legislative session by marching to the Capitol to protest measures they believed could hurt Florida's African-American community.

Since then, many black community leaders and some politicians, black and white, say race relations have only gotten worse in Florida and are likely to deteriorate even further. Last week Attorney General Bob Butterworth, citing several race-related incidents and policies that generated negative publicity for Florida in the past year, said the state is now seen by many as "the racism capital of the world."

New governmental policies, increased activism by African-American leaders and a record showing by black voters in the 2000 general election have created a crucible in which blacks have been both angered and energized.

The fallout from the previous year could continue into the 2001 legislative session, which starts today. Black lawmakers and social activists say they may have a larger voice in the Legislature and in governmental affairs now that African-Americans as a group have shown the power they can summon at election time.

"A lot of people trying to make decisions know now that we will vote," said former Rep. Tony Hill of Jacksonville, now a labor leader in Florida. "The cat is out of the bag, and we're fired up and we're ready to go."

Some of the issues certain to be pushed by black legislators in the session and beyond: laws that would punish racial profiling; policies that demand equal pay for minorities and women; ensuring fair play during discussions of nursing home reform; and efforts to reduce the disproportionate impact privatization of government services could have on blacks.

Of course, Gov. Jeb Bush's One Florida Initiative -- a move to replace affirmative action that started much of the racial discord in the state -- will continue to be debated.

GOVERNOR BLAMED

Some black community leaders, even those who are supportive of Bush, point to the governor as the instigator of the recent slide in race relations.

The Rev. Joseph Wright, African-American pastor of the Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, is generally supportive of Bush and thinks the governor's "heart is in the right place."

But even Wright, whom Bush has appointed to the state Ethics Commission and a special panel on election reform, said the governor has misjudged Florida's black community and mishandled attempts to reform programs that benefit blacks.

"In terms of race, things have gotten wider between the races, and racial hatred seems to be surfacing more often," Wright said. "It seems as if he [Bush] is trying to eliminate things that involve African-Americans, and I would say he has made things worse."

Bush has long presented himself as a friend to minorities and thinks his One Florida plan that would end affirmative action will ultimately make things better for blacks. Bush recently cried while telling a meeting of black ministers about how some of his African-American staff members have been mistreated for supporting the governor's plans.

Said Bush spokeswoman Katie Baur: "You look across the broad spectrum of what this governor has done on minority involvement in state government and in the private sector and it's impressive."

Baur points out that Bush has: appointed more women and blacks to judgeships than any other governor; increased the number of state contracts awarded to minority contractors; tripled the money spent on minority health issues; and with his One Florida plan, put far more minorities into Florida's university system without lowering admission standards.

In Bush's defense, the racial problems in Florida go far beyond and much further back historically than the arrival of Jeb Bush as governor in 1998. But the combination of Bush's controversial policies and the recent fallout from the state's history of racial problems have many Floridians worried about what the future may hold for race relations in Florida. …