Come September, the University of South Florida will present its final report on structural racism and its impact on the city’s Black community, accompanying the assessment with recommendations for a cure.
I’m eager to hear what they advise.
Would they recommend greater emphasis on affordable housing, healthcare and Black businesses, suggest hiring more Black police officers and establishing a closer collaboration with public schools?
The thing is, new policies and practices to combat racism across America have consistently been challenged. Think of the rancor that accompanied school desegregation. Whispers of affordable housing often set off howls about crime and plummeting property values. Affirmative action raises accusations of undeserved advantage, while ignoring the connections and legacies long accepted by the privileged class. And consider the resistance to teaching the unpleasant truths about slavery and contributions of Black people.
My point is, legislation can’t change minds or erase the pain of racism. Anyone who listened to last week’s City Council meeting heard Council Member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman talk about yearning to go to a fair outside the confines of her Black neighborhood. She was 10. As an adult, Wheeler-Bowman said she’s been followed in stores. Fellow Council Member Deborah Figgs-Sanders reminded everyone that, for the Council’s two Black members, racism is not an abstract concept. “It’s news for some,” she said, “but it’s life for others.”
Not having been born in the United States, I was spared the humiliation and anguish of growing up with racism. But in St. Petersburg, I’ve encountered it in subtle and overt ways, some that I’ve actually found amusing. Like the security guard years ago who assumed I had arrived at a downtown condominium to clean the apartment of the woman I was there to interview. Then there’s the very nice man at CVS who treats me as though I’m in my dotage when I ask a question. Is it because I’m a “senior,” Black, or both, I wonder? I suspect condescension and racism go hand-in-hand.
My family and I have experienced “white flight.” Quickly, oh so quickly, our new neighbors who had smiled at us – one even sent their daughter over with brownies – sold their homes and moved away. A few stalwarts stayed. Still, that was years ago, and guess what, new homeowners who don’t seem to care what color their neighbors are steadily move in.
This week I called Goliath Davis III, whose family goes back four generations in St. Petersburg and who was the city’s first Black police chief, to talk about racism he’s experienced as a Black resident. He brushed my inquiry aside, instead keying in on the USF structural racism study.
“For me, maybe I don’t know enough about the initiative, it raises a lot of questions. Why at the tail end of a two-term administration you’re now launching an initiative to deal with structural racism? And the way it is structured, all it does is it tells us what we already know,” he said of the preliminary findings.
Davis has had a fraught relationship with City Hall. He retired as police chief and was appointed deputy mayor for economic development in Midtown – a predominantly poor, African-American area – by Mayor Rick Baker. Under his watch, Midtown got its first full-service supermarket. He later was fired by Mayor Bill Foster, but worked as a private citizen to help the area get a second store – a Walmart Neighborhood Market – after the original supermarket closed. The second store also left.
The struggling district, since redrawn and renamed, is now known as the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area. It was established, a city website explains, “to promote reinvestment in housing and neighborhoods, commercial corridors, business development, education and workforce development and non-profit capacity building.” The 7.4 square-mile CRA is the largest in St. Petersburg and one of the largest in Florida.
None of that impresses Davis, who calls the creation of the CRA “a token gesture” and adds that “it doesn’t really do anything to improve the community, just bringing about a lot of gentrification.”
There’s still no grocery store, though there are new plans for one. Davis faults the city for not supporting the Black-owned enterprise that operated the failed Tangerine Plaza shopping center, where the two supermarkets foundered. “They subsidize everything. Look how long they subsidized the Pier,” he said. “They don’t go out there and tell white folks to swim. They subsidize them.”
The structural racism study would have made more sense if it had been launched at the beginning of Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration, rather than near its end, he said.
“What obligation does the next administration have to follow through? We don’t know who the next mayor is going to be. History has shown that when Baker left, Foster did his own thing. When Foster left, Kriseman did his own thing. There doesn’t ever seem to be any continuity. You get these fits and starts,” he said. “I fully understand that this is only the beginning. Whatever they do, they have to obligate the next mayor, the next administration to follow through.”
His first cousin happens to be Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, who also holds the title of city administrator. In a couple of eloquent deliveries during last week’s Council meeting, she addressed the effort to examine the historical and current impact of structural racism on St. Petersburg’s Black community. The administration is trying to do something different, “something transformational,” she said.
Tomalin acknowledged Kriseman’s waning tenure. “He’s passing the torch,” she said. “We’re setting it up for other people to carry it forward.”
Jabaar Edmond, a filmmaker and activist, was among those who advocated for the structural racism study. “We got 200 to 300 community members that gave feedback for this,” he said of the effort that included lobbying City Council members, who unanimously approved the establishment of an African-American Quality of Life Committee. It has not yet come to fruition.
“I think this should be an election issue. We will have to have something that is set in stone into perpetuity,” Edmond said. “The Black community is constantly denied justice. We deserve to have some governing power.”
Suffice to say, St. Petersburg’s next mayor, whoever he or she is, should not expect to appease the overall Black community with crumbs thrown to the usual groups and organizations.
Recent events across the nation have awakened a new insistence for fairness, humanity and understanding. Today’s generation of Black St. Petersburg residents, like Edmond, who is 41, and their allies will not accept the status quo, but push for substantive, sustainable change.
Given the wave of defensiveness and fury greeting such efforts nationwide, though, it’s difficult to express unbridled optimism for their success.