Nantucket’s Cultural Clash

David Abel, Boston Globe, July 28, 2008

Hydrangeas still bloom beside cedar-shingle homes, and yachts continue to bob beyond private beaches, but this old preserve of the rich and primped is undergoing a change unlike anything it has witnessed in the centuries since English explorers established the island as a whaling port.

Evidence of the change is at El Rincon Salvadoreño, the island’s first restaurant catering to Latinos, at the newly expanded Star Brazil market off the road to the airport, and at the Island Flair clothing store opened two years ago by a Jamaican couple just off Main Street.

In the Nantucket School District, where a decade ago more than 95 percent of the students were white, 25 percent of this year’s nearly 1,300 students are members of a minority group and 10 percent grew up speaking another language.

And then there is the Rev. Donovan Kerr’s growing New Life Ministries church, which on Sundays attracts as many as 150 congregants, nearly all of them black or Hispanic.

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The declining homogeneity of Nantucket’s population—town officials estimate there are about 20,000 full-time residents, more than double what the US Census Bureau documented in 2000—has introduced new stresses to an island unaccustomed to culture clashes.

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“What’s changing is the people who’ve come to Nantucket with the attitudes they’ve gotten from the city,” said Deputy Chief Charles Gibson, who coauthored the report about the confrontation, which left a 13-year-old boy injured. “They’re coming from other communities, where they’ve been discriminated against . . . they’re not gaining their perceptions from Nantucket.”

But minorities throughout the 48-square-mile island say the majority has sometimes chafed at their arrival and decision to stay.

Kerr, the island’s only black minister, said he has experienced the gamut of racism. {snip}

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Sharon Liburd, the mother of the 13-year-old who suffered a separated shoulder in the confrontation with police last summer, said her son and his friends are angry about the experience. The incident near the ferry docks occurred after an officer told the youths to move off the sidewalk, because they were on bicycles and allegedly blocking pedestrian traffic.

One of the boys suggested that the officer asked them to move because they were black, and after the two started arguing, the officer called for backup, prompting a response by all 16 officers on duty. The officers chased the boys, forced them on the ground and arrested two of them.

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David Harding, a former Army sergeant who has lived on the island since 2001, spent seven years working for the Steamship Authority and says he left because of a steady stream of insults from passengers and colleagues. “If I were starting over again, I wouldn’t live here,” said the 63-year-old African-American, who now shuttles residents and tourists around on a town bus. “It’s very, very, very racist.”

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Some minorities who moved to the island years ago said they share the concerns of whites who have been born and raised on Nantucket.

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Assistant Town Clerk Linda MacDonald, who 18 years ago moved to Nantucket from New Zealand, sees the growing diversity nearly every day at Town Hall. The town doesn’t track racial demographics, but a 2006 estimate by the US Census Bureau found that 10 percent of the island’s population was black, more than 5 percent was Hispanic, and another 2 percent was either Asian or of mixed ethnicity.

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Assistant Superintendent Carlos Colley, who is originally from Puerto Rico and moved to Nantucket about three years ago, said the school district has struggled to keep up with the rising number of students who aren’t proficient in English. This year, 125 students in the district spoke English as their second language, and 34 students barely spoke English; 10 years ago, only nine students had another native language, but all of them spoke English.

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