For State’s African Americans, ‘One Florida’ Is ‘Divisive Florida’
MIAMI — During the past two months, Floridians have heard starkly different views on how Gov. Jeb Bush’s “One Florida” plan would affect minority enrollment in university admissions and participation in state contracting decisions.
There is widespread support among Whites for Mr. Bush’s program, which among other things gives a break in college admissions to the poor. But the response from African Americans in Florida has made it clear that Bush’s plan is not welcomed.
“Gov. Bush made a very strategic error at the very beginning. He didn’t consult with a broad section of the community that would be impacted, the greatest impacted by the Florida One plan,” says Dr. Walter L. Smith, a professor and graduate coordinator in the University of Florida graduate school of education and a former president of Florida A&M University.
“When you think you know better for your child, you do what’s best without asking him,” Kenneth Nunn, a Black law professor at the University of Florida and an expert on affirmative action, told The New York Times. “So we got One Florida [and] now we have an enraged Black community.”
The Rev. R.B. Holmes, a Tallahassee Democrat who was Bush’s most outspoken Black supporter during the governor’s election campaign, said: “Instead of One Florida, it’s divisive Florida. This is the first time in a long time I’ve seen so many Black leaders so outraged by a governor’s initiative.”
And while some African Americans can see merit in what Bush originally intended, they still have plenty of skepticism about the plan.
“[Bush] wants to do the right thing, but I don’t think [he knows] what the right thing is,” says Dr. Ike Tribble, consultant to and the former president of the Florida Education Fund. “The motivation [for One Florida] was to cut off Ward Connerly at the pass. That rush to judgement [and the lack of communication with the community] now has them in a whole lot of hot water.”
Connerly, a businessman who led and won the fight against affirmative action in his home state of California, has been in Florida for several months trying to get an anti-affirmative action voter referendum on the ballot.
“We’ve got to wait and let it shake out because I’m not sure Bush can deliver on this one,” Tribble adds. “The idea that you can tell folks who haven’t been fair all their lives to be fair … it’s just not viable.”
The passions engulfing the program erupted at the historic Gusman Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami on Feb. 3. Approximately 1,700 protesters filled the seats in the orchestra and balcony and hundreds more circled the block waiting their turn to get in, according to The Times.
To a din of jeers from a mostly Black audience, Bush claimed: “We are embracing diversity, not rejecting it. This plan will create more opportunity for people.”
He then added, “This has been a difficult time for me. The last two weeks I have carried a heavy heart around.”
But Carrie P. Meek, a Democrat and Black congresswoman from Miami, said, to thunderous applause, “The pain the governor feels is a self-inflicted wound.”
During an emotionally-charged hearing here in Tampa at Hillsborough Community College last month, speakers alternated praise and scorn for One Florida, which includes an executive order wiping out race and ethnicity as factors in university admissions and barring the consideration of race contracting decisions.
The One Florida proposal also guarantees admission to some state universities to the top 20 percent of each high school senior class, adds $20 million to the state’s financial aid budget and makes it more likely that minority businesses will become certified to work across the state.
The first of three public hearings on One Florida was held last month at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. The hearings are the result of a sit-in earlier last month by two Black state lawmakers inside Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan’s office. State Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, and state Rep. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, demanded that Bush rescind his executive order. Bush refused, but agreed to the hearings to help end the protest (see Black Issues, Feb. 3).
Many in attendance at Hillsborough said programs such as One Florida are not sufficient to counter what they describe as the state’s “systematic racism.”
“Discrimination continues in this state,” says Leon Russell, a past president of the Florida branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “The governor basically says, ‘Trust us to do better for you.’ He might; he might not — and that is the concern.”
Smith, the namesake of the University of Florida Institute of Higher Education’s Walter L. Smith Endowed Scholarship Fund, wasn’t at the first two “One Florida” public hearings. But, at press time he said he would be in Tallahassee on Feb. 11 for the last one.
“They say that these advantages shouldn’t be based on color, but how can you take that attitude when the whole history of America is about advantage based on the color of your skin,” Smith says.
But Crystal Picaroni, a Hillsborough Community College student who has been accepted at the University of South Florida, says One Florida is the fairest way to evaluate university applicants.
“It will allow anybody who is well-deserving to be admitted into a state university,” she says. “The only people who will be left out will be those who don’t try hard enough in school.”
The panel holding the hearings consists of 15 state lawmakers, and will produce a final report after the public testimony.
The Board of Regents, which oversees the State University System, will vote on some of the education parts of One Florida on Feb. 17. They must also be approved by the state Board of Education, made up of the governor and Cabinet.
Marvin Davies, representing the St. Petersburg-based African American Action Alliance, also says One Florida would be more divisive than unifying. He warned of political repercussions for Bush if the plan goes ahead.
“If he does not resolve this issue, he’ll be a one-term governor,” Davies says. “We’re serious. This is not something that’s going away.”
And Dr. Freddie L. Groomes, executive assistant to the president at Florida State University, adds: “As an equal opportuity practicioner, the One Florida plan gives me reason for pause. In essence, it’s a theory that suggests that people of goodwill will do the right thing in reference to people of color and women.
“But,” she continues, “I think that to [replace] a policy that has proven to be effective in varying degrees with something that offers no guarantees … I thnk that history certainly suggests that the federal protection of laws have yielded more lasting returns.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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