Florida’s racist legacy and today’s throwback politics

October 2, 2018 7:00 am
DK photo feature

Left: Sanibel Island, Fl, 1956. Credit to the State Archives of Florida. Right: Confederate Battle Flag. Credit to the Florida Department of State.

Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Florida pretends it’s not part of the South. Florida pretends it’s some Neverland of palms and pastels, beaches and theme parks full of talking animals and plastic princesses, a place where the past exists merely as a roadside attraction.

You know that’s crap. It’s 2018 and the state only recently decided to exchange the statue of an obscure Confederate general for one of the great African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune as a representative of Florida in the U.S. Capitol. It’s 2018 and there’s still a huge Confederate battle flag flying at the intersection of I-4 and I-75.

Until 1865, Florida was a slave economy, and dependent on cheap (largely black) labor until the 1960s. Florida was the third state to secede from the Union. Per capita, more black people were lynched in Florida than any other state. We don’t like to talk about it, but our heritage confronts us all the time, with our poorly funded public education system (in which most of the kids are black or Latino), or every time an unarmed black man or boy gets shot, or in the Jim Crow-era rules the state uses to disenfranchise people of color.

As if that’s not enough, now conservatives are pitching a big fat Caucasian hissy fit at the thought of a black man becoming governor. Too much of Florida, as our official state song puts it, is “still longing for de old plantation.” Barack Obama was called a Marxist, a Muslim, a crypto-terrorist, a foreigner. Nobody’s yet suggested that Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum is actually a Nigerian Boko Haramist who wants to shoot kittens, abolish college football, and outlaw Christmas, but it may be the Florida Republican Party just hasn’t gotten around to that yet. Gillum’s a “socialist,” a “radical,” “totally corrupt.” Like everybody to the left of Benito Mussolini, he’s George Soros’s puppet.

Gillum obviously has some issues of his own: the Tallahassee Democrat reported that the FBI is looking into real estate deals by lobbyists who have been his friends and campaign supporters. The FBI has not named Gillum as a subject of the investigation, and Gillum says the FBI specifically told him he was not a subject.

Meanwhile, Gillum’s s opponent, Trumpist former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis appears at conferences with white supremacists and Alex Jones-flavored conspiracy wingnuts. Until recently he belonged to a racist Tea Party Facebook group along with birthers, people who think Muslims should be hanged, and Corey Stewart, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate from Virginia, who says slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War. DeSantis –coincidentally a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon at Yale, the same fraternity as that fine, beer-loving American Brett Kavanaugh – is so infected with toxic whiteness he kicked off the general campaign imploring Floridians to not “monkey this up” by electing Gillum.

I want to be clear, now: DeSantis is not to blame for the notorious August 31st  robo-call with the “jungle music” and the blackface minstrel accented voice saying, “Hello dar. Ah is Andrew Gillum.” An Idaho-based Nazi-lite outfit calling itself the Road to Power claimed credit. But the thing is, see, Trump and his white nationalist posse have enabled racist idiots from Coeur d’Alene to Coral Springs to loudly declaim the 1850-style opinions they once had to mutter in the privacy of their own living rooms, country clubs, and Klan meetings.

Ever since Nixon deployed his “Southern Strategy,” appealing to whites aggrieved by the thought of Negroes sitting in the front of the bus or moving in next door or enrolling in “their” schools, the Republican Party has used racism as a campaign strategy. Phoenix Editor-in-chief Julie Hauserman reported on September 24 that officials of the Florida Republican Party have been posting all kinds of racist memes, hate speech, and demented conspiracy theories on social media. Before she deep-sixed it, Orange County Republican Party state committeewoman Kathy Gibson displayed a meme of Gillum suggesting he’d demand reparations for slavery as well as what I’m sure she thought was a just adorable play on the word racist: “Rational Adults Confronting Intolerant Socialist Trolls.”

Gov. Rick Scott duly demanded that she resign, but his moral authority is a tad undercut by his presiding over a state clemency board which behaves like a coterie of plantation white folks. To get their civil rights restored, former felons must have served their time, paid restitution, and stayed out of trouble. They must apply for a hearing, which can take up to seven years merely to schedule, then appear in person before the governor, the attorney general, the state financial chief and the commissioner of agriculture (because intimate knowledge of citrus canker qualifies one as an expert judge of character) who ask questions such as “Do you take your parents out to dinner?” or “Do you attend church regularly?” At a June 14th clemency hearing, CFO Jimmy Patronis demanded an African American man say how many children he had with “how many different mothers.”

Leaving aside the condescension, this whole process is capricious and unjust. As Rick Scott, blowing off a rejected clemency petitioner in 2016, said, “We, um, there’s absolutely no standards, so we can make any decisions we want.”

In 1868, the year the 14th Amendment guaranteed ex-slaves full citizenship and all people equal protection under the law, Florida’s old white landed class wrested power back from Reconstruction progressives and ratified a constitution disenfranchising anyone who committed a variety of crimes, including petty theft. If you stole a chicken or a loaf of bread, you could be denied the vote – for life. In 2007, then-Gov. Charlie Crist agreed to allow nonviolent felons to automatically be considered for clemency, restoring rights to more than 150,000 citizens. But as soon as Rick Scott moved into the mansion, he junked that process, going back to the monarchical model where he gets to dispense “mercy.” Florida has disenfranchised more people than any other state. Right now, an estimated 1.7 million are denied the vote. About 20 percent are African-American.

The good news is Floridians have a chance to drag themselves out of the Old South in November, both by electing a forward-looking young African-American to begin to repair the damage done by eight years of Rick Scott, and by saying yes on Amendment 4, which will return the rights of former felons (unless they were convicted of murder or sex crimes) allowing them to function as full members of society. A little more than 150 years ago, we fought a bloody war over what America should be: a feudal culture where race was destiny or a nation with equal justice under the law.

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Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo.