Today in Miami, one in three Black residents is an immigrant.
For at least the past few decades, Miami’s African Americans have been mingling with Haitians as they have moved into the neighborhood, with Jamaicans working in local hospitals, with Trinidadians in area schools, and with Bahamians holding public office.
Now, a trend of “Black immigrant takeover” is radiating across the state and nation, according to a Pew Research Center study.
So, how does the new makeup of Blacks in America affect civic and community life?
Being Black in America doesn’t just mean native-born American anymore and, of all the regions in the U.S., the Miami metro area has the largest share of Black immigrants at 34%, compared to New York at 28% and Washington, D.C. at 15%.
This data unearths an even harder question than the former – will the historical contributions of Black Americans in Miami soon be supplanted or overshadowed by those of Black immigrants in 2020 and beyond?
On Aug. 18, Miami-Dade and Broward voters will find names on their ballots to prove the point that foreign nationals have inserted themselves into business and government.
The Rise of the Black Immigrant
“Haitians were always seen as aliens here in Miami. We couldn’t speak the language,” said Marie Woodson, candidate for Florida State House District 101. “I remember once I was asked why I had a master’s degree since I was Black and Haitian. Later on, the tables were turned and that same person who scorned me had to sit in front of me and ask me for a job.”
Haitians, like many Caribbean nationals, have built a name for themselves in South Florida.
Gordon Eric Knowles, the president of the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce, said he admires Haitians because they have built a community around surviving.
“They actually had to stick together due to the language,” said Knowles, who is of Bahamian heritage. “These immigrants come from a Black community in their country where they worked together. When you come over as a group and you stick together because of your ethnicity and commonality, you begin to survive together.”
But it is that same ethnic group commonality that serves to deeply divide Miami across ethnic and racial lines, said Marlon Hill, who is running for the Miami-Dade commissioner District 9 seat.
“We have to share more common experiences among us all. What are the family experiences we all have in common… things we cook, how we dance, the music we listen to. That’s one way to bring greater understanding among people of different experiences,” he said.
Hill migrated to South Miami Heights from the island of Jamaica when he was 14. He studied Spanish at Universidad de Costa Rica and later married a woman from Trinidad. His cross-cultural interests serve him well as a partner at the law firm of Hamilton, Miller & Birthisel, more so now while running for the commission seat in his home district.
District 9 in Southwest Miami-Dade is the largest geographic district of the county’s thirteen districts yet comprises some predominantly Black communities like West Perrine and Richmond Heights.
Growing up African American in Miami
“Our neighborhoods are nothing to be proud of,” said Dr. Justin Rose, professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY.
Rose grew up on the other side of the county in unincorporated North Miami-Dade near Opa-Locka. His neighborhood was one of constant contradictions. While he would play football in the street, a neighborhood drug dealer lived next door. It was here he learned street smarts from his big brothers and mentors, but it was also here that a shootout with the police and his house getting robbed resulted in his mother installing bars on their windows.
He attended Miami Northwestern High School in the heart of Liberty City and recalls how students would wear shirts embossed with the letters “PBC.” It stood for Pork and Beans Clique.
“‘Pork and Beans’ are the housing projects located near Northwestern. It’s almost like these kids had to find something to take pride in. They couldn’t rock their national colors like the Jamaicans. Where else could they draw their pride from? ‘I’m from the City,’ they’d say. But all of these people are poor people,” said Rose.
Rose – classified as a gifted student in elementary school – looked up to several West Indians in his community; he believed them to be the more successful Blacks in South Florida.
“Bahamians, Grenadians, Jamaicans. Jamaicans, especially, always had pride. They were cool. When I was growing up, they were living in Miramar,” said Rose.
Miramar has the fifth highest percentage of Jamaican residents in the U.S today and the twelfth highest percentage of residents from Trinidad and Tobago. It also has an annual median household income of more than $67,000 and a homeownership rate of 74%.
Kobina Aidoo, the director of the 2009 documentary film “The Neo-African Americans,” is originally from Ghana and lived in Miami for 8 years.
After conducting countless interviews with Blacks across the U.S., he doesn’t fault one group for wanting to find greener pastures or the other group for remaining in its community of origin, hoping that things will get better.
“Black Americans and Black immigrants just have two different projects,” said Aidoo. “To really understand the relationship between Black immigrants and African Americans, you have to think that historically all Black people in America have faced a wall to the American dream by virtue of their skin color. Over the centuries African Americans, through their blood and sweat, have broken windows in that wall that are big enough to jump through. Their instinct, though, is to break the whole wall down and then walk through. That is the African American project — one of transformation.”
Conversely, says Aidoo, when Black immigrants migrate from countries that are so economically depressed and politically disadvantaged, they don’t see a wall to the American dream at all.
“They see windows and they just jump through, because the Black immigrant project is one of exploitation,” he said.
Rose believes it is easier just to see windows when you are migrating from a majority Black nation-state.
“I went to Ghana when I was in college and, one day, our van was required to pull to the side of the road for the presidential convoy to pass,” said Rose. “I remember feeling: Wow. The guy who is in that car is Black. Not only that, most of the doctors and lawyers there are Black. When Black people speak there, people listen to them.”
The Battle for Upward Mobility
Aidoo and other cultural theorists maintain that Black immigrants’ desire for upward mobility will always trump their desire for unification and that may indeed be the secret to their success.
Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, of Bahamian heritage, has seen how Black boys are offered fewer opportunities their white and Latino counterparts here in South Florida. It’s why she’s fought to improve prospects for African American boys for decades with her mentoring program, the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project.
“If they only had the same resources, opportunities, and exposure, it would make a dramatic difference in this community, the state, and the nation,” she said. “Even at home their lack of opportunity is compounded by the words ‘Spanish-preferred’ on job applications.”
Hill echoes the fact that language and national heritage adds to the tension of race differences in South Florida.
“People are rebuffed because when they are trying to do business in their community, the person offering customer service cannot speak English,” he said. “They don’t interact with each other as neighbors because they can’t communicate with each other.”
Hill, like many of the immigrants on the ballot this year, is taking on a project that centers less on the advancement of one ethnic group but on creating an equitable situation for all of Miami’s many ethnic groups.
Rose cites the ideology of Harvard professor Mary C. Waters, author of “Black Identities,” who says that when immigrants first arrive, they have strong social and cultural capital and a positive outlook on American race relations that facilitate their integration into the American economic structure.
Yet, over time, the realities of American race relations begin to swamp their positive cultural values.
“When they get to their third kid or their kid’s kid, there is a shift in the progress. The child spends a lot more time in America and the parents are a little older. That child may be the furthest one away from their cultural values. They are coming up in a system that targets and marks out people of color. Something begins to atrophy,” said Rose. “You also have to have really thick skin to overcome a lot of the racism and extra hurdles. It’s a wonderful story to tell about how your parents worked so hard but these children then begin to wonder, why do people of color have to work doubly or triply as hard?”
Tiffani Knowles is the co-author of “HOLA America: Guts, Grit, Grind and Further Traits in the Successful American Immigrant” and the online course series by the same name.