Down on the Plantation

It's not just a name; it's a way of life in this racist suburb

The boys ride to my driveway on mad killer bees. Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzz! The sound emanates from small gas-powered motors, which are attached to little steel scooters called Go-Peds. They come for the basketball hoop, and I let them play, though the near-daily thumping of the ball on the blacktop and the occasional crash into my garage door sometimes make me wonder why I do it.

But they're good kids, overall. On the blacktop, hoop dreams literally join Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream: Of about ten regular players, half are white and half are black or of mixed races. The youngest is 12, the oldest 17, and while they're aware of racial issues, the subject really doesn't seem to matter much to them. They've grown up in a mixing ground. The neighborhood, which lies south of Broward Boulevard and west of the Florida Turnpike, is where the slow-but-sure inland migration of blacks meets the mostly white west.

Plantation Park, with homes generally valued at $180,000 to $300,000, is well-integrated and happily so, though not without an occasional moment of racial tension, like the one a few weeks ago when Larry and Jared buzzed over to play 21.

Larry, a 13-year-old with tousled blond hair, told me that police had pulled over Jared, who is black, on his Go-Ped.

"I can go anywhere I want to on my Go-Ped and they never bother me," Larry said. "But they pull him over and give him a warning. It's racist."

Later I asked Jared, who happens to be one of the more responsible kids on the block, why he thought they pulled him over. He pointed at the skin on his arm. Larry told me: "If I had a gun and was waving it around on the street and Jared was riding his Go-Ped, the police would pull over Jared. They wouldn't even notice me."

The idea that police officers would single out black Go-Ped riders seemed perfectly plausible to me. I live in a city called Plantation, after all. The boys' complaint triggered memories. Coaching my son's tee-ball team at the Plantation Athletic League and seeing, out of hundreds of little players, maybe three black kids. Visiting the neighborhood bar, where the owner went out of his way to make racist remarks. Hearing that the city council ran a black nightclub out of town.

I decided to do some investigating, beginning with a visit to the police department, where I met with accreditation officer Robin Massey. In the lobby, I noticed that an all-white collection of Plantation cops was pictured in the high-profile traffic division publicity photo. On the wall in Massey's office was a framed photograph, put up by her office partner, of Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush the First.

Massey gave me the numbers: Of about 194 sworn officers, only ten, or 5 percent, are black. However, 13.5 percent of Plantation's 83,000 residents are black. Just three years ago, only four black cops worked in Plantation, or 2 percent of the force. It wasn't until 2000 that a black officer, Al Butler, was promoted to sergeant. He's still the only one.

"We know we are lacking, there is no doubt about that," Massey said. "To make amends, we are reaching out to minorities, sending fliers to minority colleges and recruiting at job fairs."

I was taken aback, not by the information but by the candor. Amends? Massey was actually telling the truth, a rarity among Plantation officials when it comes to matters of race. Talk to almost any local black elected official in Broward County and they'll tell you that the city has a serious race problem. Accusations of prejudice have long dogged the city. Back in March, a headline in the Sun-Sentinel offered, "Racism Charges Baffle Officials." The accompanying story asked, "Is Plantation a Racist City?" The article dealt narrowly with only one issue, annexation. It was well-balanced -- and largely useless, since it failed to answer its own question.

The answer, of course, is yes. The police department is just one indicator. After meeting with Massey, I made inquiries at the volunteer fire department and learned that none of the 27 supervisors is black. I went to City Hall, a white-columned, brick mansion built in the style of an antebellum plantation house. Again, no black department heads. Never have been. And, needless to say, a person of color has never been elected to the council, even though a total of 33 percent of the population is minority.

The issue goes far deeper than minority hiring and equal representation. The truth is that Plantation has been in a kind of war against blacks since the day it was incorporated in 1953. The battle has been fought over property, over who lives and works where, and it comes complete with border squabbles, retreats, fortifications, political spats, and courtroom fights. It's happening in communities everywhere across the United States, of course, but Plantation has been a particularly regressive party in that war, the civic equivalent of "I've got mine." Its motto is, "The grass is greener," but its real pride is that its people are whiter. Or at least, the people who matter are.

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