What is Caribbean Americans’ Role in U.S. Elec-tions?

Author  Patrick Smikle

The role of Caribbean Americans in the United States electoral process is important. CaribbeanToday sought the views of community members about that role in the upcoming elections and U.S. politics in general. We highlight the views of two: Winston Barnes and Marlon Hill.

HillBarnes is a writer and broadcaster who hosts a talk-show “The Open Line” on WAVS1170AM, a station which promotes itself as “the Heartbeat of the Caribbean”. Barnes is also an adjunct professor at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens. He was elected to the City of Miramar Commission in Mar. 2003.

Hill is an attorney, writer, broadcaster and community activist. He is a past president of the Caribbean Bar Association and is a frequent guest on WPLG’s Sunday morning talk-show “This Week in South Florida”.

Their responses are edited for space and clarity.

QUESTION: What is your sense of the extent to which candidates for various offices are reaching out to the Caribbean American community?

BARNES: The candidates are reaching out so far in the sense they have invited elected officials to a number of meet-and-greet events and fundraisers. As usual very few commercials have been purchased, to this point on 24/7 Caribbean-oriented radio stations.

I do not expect much advertising to come in the direction of Caribbean media in South Florida. For two reasons: One is that such media is usually ignored and secondly, sometimes (advertising) buys are done only as part of an “urban” buy, along with an R&B outlet, which is popular with the Jamaican-Caribbean community in South Florida.

HILL: I believe the Caribbean American community is a maturing electorate in the state of Florida. In this regard, the community’s integration and visibility is not fully on the GPS of most campaigns.

Most campaigns overlook the multi-cultural and multi-lingual dynamism of Caribbean Americans; The growth of the numbers of Jamaicans and Haitians in South Florida and Puerto Ricans in Central Florida. You will be able to tell whether a particular candidate values the Caribbean American when you see evidence of the campaign in media or socio-cultural spaces.

Q: What issues should Caribbean American voters focus on in making their decisions as to who to support in August and November?

BarnesBARNES: Decidedly the number one issue Caribbean American voters will or should be paying attention to is immigration. Many across the community have literally disappeared, some gone underground some even back home to the Caribbean and I suspect, to other states which are not as transparent as the “Sunshine State”.

HILL: For August, first and foremost, it is important for Caribbean Americans to remember that it is a closed primary election on Aug. 28. In this regards, voters will only be able to elect the candidate of choice based on chosen party affiliation.

As a voter, you have the right to change your party affiliation at any particular moment and have your say in a competitive race. Registration must be updated and complete prior to July 30. Otherwise, you won’t have a say until the general election.

Caribbean Americans must also focus on the candidate that aligns with your own core values and the interests of your families. As such, issues related to public education, healthcare, affordable housing, or making ends meet with a livable wage and salary directly impact most of us on a daily basis.

Q: Do you think the Caribbean American community is sufficiently involved in the electoral processes in South Florida?


BARNES: Caribbean American voters have tended to vote for individuals instead of on issues so they tend to focus on presidential elections, even as attempts are made to raise awareness, on radio for example, and in newspaper and magazine articles, for voters to become more involved on local issues. Even the increased election of Caribbean American persons has not, in my opinion, increased the awareness that local elections are critical.

HILL: Unfortunately, I do not believe most Caribbean Americans recognize the power and value of their vote. This is the challenge of immigrant groups still making their way to full integration in a society.

However, our clock is running out. There are no more excuses for procrastination. There are far too many Caribbean Americans who are eligible for naturalization, but failing to complete this necessary process of being contributing citizens. As our numbers continue to peak in South and Central Florida communities, in particular, the impact of elected leadership will be felt more and more. We are discarding the currency of our vote in return for zero benefit for our families. We have to stop skylarking.

Q: If in your view this involvement is insufficient, what should be done about it and by whom?

HILL: Our increased involvement will have to be inspired from many fronts. The Caribbean American community gathers inspiration from our places of worship, our venues cultural enjoyment and our activities of social interaction. All these organizations play a significant role and responsibility in elevating our civic engagement.

The leadership in our community comes in different shapes and sizes. We are not monolithic in those we lean on for influence. We will be a powerful force when these spheres of influence recognize there is a collective benefit from full on engagement.

Q: In her recently published book “The Caribbeanization of Black Politics”, University of Florida political scientist Dr. Sharon D. Wright Austin suggests that there is need for a coalition of black voters (native-born black Americans, Haitian Americans and immigrants from the Anglophone Caribbean) to better influence policies from elected officials. Her argument is that such a coalition does not. now exist. What are your thoughts on this issue?

BARNES: This coalition mentioned by Dr. Wright Austin may probably never exist. Too many English speaking Caribbean Americans fail to come to an understanding of the commonalities which bind us to African Americans, in great part because of absolute ignorance about contributions Caribbean (people) have made to U.S. history, culture and education, and the military over the centuries.

In addition, many Caibbean (people), especially in South Florida, but not exclusively so, have tended to assume attitudes about African Americans from their usually white employers. This is usually a totally inaccurate and many times racist attitude. Many Caribbeans still cling to those notions, however.

Hopefully this will change as our young become as American as they are Caribbean, and/or when the community attains a better understanding of the history of black folk in the U.S. without the biases many have already developed through sheer ignorance. And, black Americans must be bold, not necessarily in a rude way, in demanding that Caribbeans learn this history!

HILL: Given the multicultural nature of the Caribbean American community, the actual numbers are way understated within the typical boxes of American society.

Though our community is predominantly black, Caribbean American culture extends to and includes others who are of the same culture, but may be of a different racial box, such as East Indian, Chinese or white.

To date, Jamaicans and Haitians lead the growth of the African American population as foreign-born blacks. As a result, the actual number of African Americans in the state of Florida and other states of America is driving the change in landscape especially in urban areas across the state. As a result, it is incumbent on Caribbean Americans to ensure that there are building coalitions and relationships with other communities of color. This is all part of our integration process.