Have the people who comprise these sections of the United States population bought into the prejudices and ethnic slurs often aimed against them?
What are the prospects that they will work together to increase their political power?
These are some of the issues addressed by Dr. Sharon D. Wright Austin, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, Gainesville, in her recently published book “The Caribbeanization of Black Politics”.
A native of Tennessee, where she earned a doctorate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Dr. Wright said growing up in Memphis, a predominantly black city, everything was seen through black/white lenses.
“You saw people who were black or were white. You didn’t encounter people who identified as Haitian, or Jamaican or anything else,” she explained. “We were all just African American. We were all just black.”
Moving to the University of Florida (UF) in 2001, she encountered students from the different Caribbean countries and became interested in how immigrants from the Anglophone Caribbean and from Haiti, relate to native born African Americans. Did African Americans resent the presence of blacks from the Caribbean? Did black people from the Caribbean accept the stereotypes and prejudices about native born black Americans?
Some of her students who were from the Caribbean told her about their parents having negative ideas about African Americans. She encountered instances of African Americans having negative ideas about Caribbean people. It was a subject ripe for academic research.
In 2011, Dr. Wright was appointed director of UF’s African American Studies Program and the research began. The book that has emerged from six years of research “explores the impact of ethnic diversification of African American communities on the prospects for black political empowerment,” said Dr. Christina M. Greer, assistant professor of political science at Fordham University.
It looks at these issues in four big metropolitan areas: New York City, Boston, Chicago and Miami-Dade County.
Last month, Dr. Wright discussed her findings as they relate to metropolitan Miami-Dade County at the county’s main library on Flagler Street in downtown Miami. The more than 600 interviews she and her students conducted with residents of Miami-Dade who identified as African American, Haitian American and Caribbean American, found that overwhelmingly, they all identified as being black. That was true even of people from the Anglophone Caribbean who did not identify as black in their homes countries.
That answered one of her key research questions: Do blacks in Miami-Dade, wherever they come from, have a shared racial group consciousness? Do they feel a strong sense of solidarity with other blacks?
Another research question: Do these groups agree that it would be good to work with other black people, regardless of differences and disagreements, to gain greater political power? This was also answered overwhelmingly in the affirmative.
“Most of them think it’s the only way they will gain political power,” Dr. Wright said.
Responses included: “We’ll never get anywhere as long as we’re divided.” “We have to put our differences aside and work together.”
The question of how to actualize the desire for political co-operation was another matter discussed. Dr. Wright said black people hold fewer elected offices and wield far less political influence in Miami-Dade than should be possible given their numbers.
Among other reasons, she attributes this to low voter registration, low voter turnout, and low levels of involvement in political activities such as attendance at political events, campaigning and contributing to political campaigns.
As an indication of what is possible, she pointed to the high turnout by black Miami-Dade voters in 2008 and 2012, when Barack Obama was a presidential candidate.
“People will vote at higher rates when there is a political candidate who excites them,” she said.
So what could be done to boost black political involvement? Maybe, Dr. Wright said, that’s the next research project.
Meanwhile, “The Caribbeanization of Black Politics” is being received with acclaim as an important contribution to the study of politics as it relates to black people from different backgrounds in the U.S.
“Moving beyond the New York City lens to Boston, Chicago, and Miami is something that has never been done in political science,” said Prof. Greer. “This book is incredibly important.”