In South Florida, stories like Exantus’ are not rare. For all the region’s diversity, the groups that teenagers and young adults socialize with are often not very mixed. Relatively recent and dramatic demographic shifts have also reshaped race relations, splintering what was once a black vs. white issue into one with myriad overlapping, seemingly contradictory pieces.
“That whole interracial white-black thing, that’s history, that’s not on the front burner anymore,” said Marvin Dunn, an associate professor of community psychology at Florida International University.
“It’s the Hispanic-black thing. And interethnic tensions. Between African Americans and Haitians, between Haitians and Jamaicans. Between Hispanics who resent Cubans for being too dominant. Wherever this country is going in terms of ethnic evolution, South Florida will get it first.”
Youngsters who jostle against one other in classrooms every day tend to be at the forefront of South Florida’s racial frontiers. For children in elementary and middle schools, ethnicity is rarely an issue. But teenagers entering high school quickly become aware of racial differences and of how society might stereotype their race. Add to that a yearning to fit in and language differences, and children naturally gravitate toward others with whom they have the most in common.
STICK WITH THEIR OWN
Which is perhaps why many South Florida teenagers report that despite the region’s diversity, children by and large stick with their own.
Experts attribute much of this self-segregation to the homogeneity of the region’s public schools. Exantus’ high school, for example, Miami Edison High, is almost entirely black. But even in more diverse schools, blatant manifestations of self-segregation emerge, most often in the cafeteria at lunchtime.
“Here it’s very cliquish,” said Kim Davis, a 17-year-old white senior at Palmetto High. “The whites hang out with the whites; the blacks hang out with the blacks. I don’t like it, but that’s how it is.”
So what does that mean for most teenagers? In South Florida, it depends on where they fall in a still evolving, almost caste-like system.
The bottom rung tends to be occupied by youngsters who do not speak English, Stepick said. At Edison, for example, 15-year-old Trakiva Breaker and her young friends referred derogatorily about recently arrived Haitians.
“You can be scared of them,” Trakiva said. “That they’ll get mad at you and start talking Creole.”
Second-generation Hispanics echoed similar disdain for the behavior of some other Latins. Kathy Lee Jimenez, 18, a senior at Cypress Bay High School in Weston, bristles when she hears other Hispanics speak Spanish. “I don’t think we should speak Spanish, and they do it all the time,” said Jimenez, whose father is Cuban. She also winces at displays of non-American nationalism.