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Politics of race run deeper than black and white

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MELONE
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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 2001


March would have been a more interesting month in St. Petersburg if Omali Yeshitela had survived the mayoral primary.

The Uhuru leader, a sharply intelligent man despite his over-the-top rhetoric, would have been forced to play more to the mainstream.

And the mainstream -- make that white people -- would have been forced to pay attention.

Tuesday's results were still instructive. Nobody votes in a bloc more than whites do, at least when it comes to voting for a black candidate.

In the city's white precincts, Yeshitela's votes came in handfuls.

The results also showed how black people often don't vote in a bloc, despite what white people apparently think.

Yeshitela led the crowded field of candidates in each of St. Petersburg's predominantly black precincts But he didn't carry them with whopping majorities -- the way, for instance, Sandy Freedman did in Tampa when she ran for office. Black voters in Tampa had more faith in Freedman than whites ever did, and certainly more than black voters in St. Petersburg have in Yeshitela. He scares a lot of them, too.

I point these things out to try to put a dent in the myth of the black monolith, that holds that all black people think the same, behave the same, vote the same. Not that I'll have much luck.

White minds resist change on the subject of all things racial. Black people sometimes act in ways that don't help.

Last week, Gov. Jeb Bush broke down in front of a group of black pastors and teachers when he talked about the abuse some of his black staff members have taken, from other blacks, because they work for him.

A woman who works in the governor's communications office said her son used to go a mostly black school where his teacher gave the child grief because his mother worked for Bush.

The sad vignette is not, though, a surprise.

I think of black friends and colleagues who don't think the way they're expected to. They rarely talk publicly of what it feels like to be criticized and shunned by other black people for daring to go their own way.

More than an individual's feelings are wounded, though, when somebody like Leslie Steele, Bush's aide, gets attacked by other black people.

A chance for honesty is lost.

I'm just one white person, whose world beyond work is about as segregated as anyone else's. But it's always struck me that if black people were more openly honest about their own disagreements about politics, policy and the mass of matters we all refer to by that word -- race -- white people would be more willing to listen.

The outcome in the black precincts in Tuesday's elections illustrates the independence of St. Petersburg's black residents when it comes to politics. People voted in these precincts the way they voted in every other precinct, on their best information and belief.

Then, in Tallahassee, black people who act independently, and work for a Republican governor, pay dearly.

The message seems to be that it's not all right for whites to view blacks in a simple-minded way, but it is all right if blacks view each other in a simple minded way.

What, then, was a white observer to make of this scene?

Midday, election day, I saw a heavy-set white man driving a yellowish pick-up through downtown St. Petersburg. It was a rolling campaign advertisement for Yeshitela. How homespun and benign the truck looked. The bed contained an oversized tire, the kind you might see on a monster truck. "Fix the flat," a handmade sign read. It was a reference, I guessed, to the deflated hopes of the city's black residents. The truck was also carrying an enormous American flag that snapped in the passing wind.

Omali Yeshitela.

Who ever would have thought it

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