Thursday, January 18, 2018
Politics

Racial issues united Florida's legislators, but divided them, too

TALLAHASSEE — It was an emotional peak in the long legislative session: Lawmakers — black, white, Hispanic — stood in somber solidarity in a Capitol rotunda to formally say Florida was sorry for what happened seven decades ago to four black men who were victims in one of state's most racist episodes.

What few knew at that moment of unity on the morning of April 18 was that just 13 hours before, a state senator had cursed at a black female lawmaker using a sexist remark and a racial slur directed at other legislators.

As news of the confrontation spread hours after the state's apology to the families of the Groveland Four, scandal engulfed the Capitol. Four days later, that senator — Miami Republican Frank Artiles — resigned.

The coincidental contrast between the long-awaited apology and Artiles' offensive tirade at a private Tallahassee club marked a climax in a nine-week legislative session when race played a dominant role. Policy proposals and unrelated events intersected at the Capitol in ways that emphasized racial divides that still exist in 2017.

That undercurrent was also evident through another senator's racially insensitive explanation for blocking a Florida Slavery Memorial. And more implicitly, it showed when the first black person elected state attorney in Florida refused to pursue the death penalty.

"We can look at a number of issues that you can say, well, there's certainly racial overtones," said Fort Lauderdale Democratic Sen. Perry Thurston, the chairman of the 28-member Florida Legislative Black Caucus.

Lawmakers don't prioritize issues that directly and indirectly impact minorities and are important to civil rights groups, said Adora Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP. "There's never been a year that we had a session that we didn't have a series of things that were insulting and unfortunate for those of us who are members of black and minority groups," Nweze said.

And yet, two of the most moving and meaningful actions the Legislature took this year involved race in a positive way, by acknowledging past wrongs.

Aside from calling for the exoneration and pardon of the Groveland Four — who were tortured, murdered or unjustly imprisoned after they were falsely accused of raping a white woman — lawmakers also formally apologized for the physical and sexual abuse of boys sent to the state-run Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.

The atrocities at that former North Florida reform school, although not driven by racial prejudice, took place in an environment of strict segregation. Victims of abuse decades ago — both black and white — testified this spring about the brutal beatings they would receive if they interacted in any way with a boy of another race.

Nweze said it's important for all Floridians to know the stories of the Groveland Four and Dozier School. But she cautioned that those were not the only victims of racism in Florida's history. "There's so many cases similar to these that we don't even hear about," she said.

Even as lawmakers unified around acknowledging those past horrors, recognizing another historical event — Florida's use of slavery — didn't get the same attention in both chambers of the Legislature.

The House in late April unanimously endorsed a proposal for a Florida Slavery Memorial, but a conservative Senate committee chairman had earlier blocked a public hearing on it.

In explaining his "discomfort about memorializing slavery" on the day of the House vote, Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley made remarks published by the Times/Herald that incensed the black caucus and other lawmakers. Baxley didn't want to "celebrate defeat" — or rather, adversity — he said, likening a slavery memorial to ones that might recognize child or sexual abuse.

"His statements have no place in today's society as it relates to race relations," Rep. Kionne McGhee, the black Miami Democrat who sponsored the House proposal, said at the time.

Later that day, Baxley was caught off guard that his remarks provoked such offense. When told of McGhee's description of his words being "borderline racism," Baxley — the descendant of a Confederate soldier and advocate of preserving relics of Confederate history — was candid and self-reflecting.

"Things get construed that way a lot, and I don't know — maybe [racism] is subtly written into our lives," he had said.

Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center — which spoke out during the controversies over Artiles' remarks and an appearance before a House committee by Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies — said the legislative session "served as an unfortunate reminder that we are not living in a post-racial Florida."

"Our legislators proved this year that racism, discrimination and disrespect are still alive and well in Florida," McCoy said.

While less obviously about race, the decision by State Attorney Aramis Ayala not to seek the death penalty was seen by some black lawmakers as an important step toward correcting years of racial disparities in Florida's criminal justice system.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Florida has never executed a white person for killing a black person, and black inmates are currently overrepresented on Death Row compared to the statewide population.

But lawmakers who opposed Ayala's decision say race wasn't a factor.

"I disagree that this has anything to do with race," said Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, who represents part of Ayala's district and pushed for her suspension from office.

"My race, my culture is a mixture of white, black and Taino Indian, so I understand where you're going with a lot of folks saying that she's being targeted because she's black," Cortes said. "No, she's being targeted because she has said she will not handle cases moving forward. In my opinion, that's a neglect of duty."

Contact Kristen M. Clark at [email protected] Follow @ByKristenMClark

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