Use education for careers to close Miami's economic divide
By Michael Lewis
As Miami Today this week honors the Best of Miami - individuals and institutions that make us great - it's important to pinpoint the preeminent peril to continued greatness and lay plans to eradicate the threat.
That peril, outstripping any lurking dangers to environment or economy, is the great divide that creates very separate Miamis.
It is a far different divide than the one that helped give birth to this newspaper 22 years ago, a division that was responsible for a 1981 Time magazine cover story, "Miami: Paradise Lost?"
That divide was ethnic, a three-way division among Hispanics, African Americans and what is broadly termed Anglos - meaning everyone else.
The chasms that divided us brought rioting in 1980 and were exacerbated by floods of refugees, 125,000 from Cuba and 50,000 from Haiti that same year. The talk of Miami was how groups so separated from one another could possibly exist without rancor.
Miami Today was born because headlines forecasting disaster overshadowed positive attributes and events that were vital in Miami's daily life but were shoved out of the press by reports of ephemeral doom, gloom and woe.
Fast-forward to today.
Ethnic divisions, debated for decades, are no longer a topic. A quarter of a century later, we are far more than just three camps of Miamians. Yet ethnic demarcations are blurred and coexistence is no longer in question. Younger Miamians ignore lines that we once thought were un-crossable, and they do so with ease.
That is the very good news: No paradise has been or will be lost over ethnic barriers.
The bad news is that paradise is jeopardized not by prejudice or ignorance but by a far more formidable foe: economics.
Miami, once split among three ethnic groups, is now divided into just two economic groups that are growing farther apart.
Hold on before you turn the page to avoid what looks like a plea for help for the downtrodden. This is not a woe-are-they cry. It's a call to take advantage of an opportunity cleverly disguised as a dilemma.
Miamians overcame ethnic divisions by turning differences into a multicultural world-class area where visitors from around the globe feel at home. Wherever they come from, visitors don't feel like outsiders and newcomers blend in quickly.
It would be difficult to find a more welcoming community for newcomers who bring something with them to the table. It's a short step with few barriers from a Miami International Airport arrival to an executive suite downtown - if you're executive-suite material.
The problem is no longer ancestry. Increasingly, it's what you have.
Economic barriers have always been real. But as ethnic barriers fall, economic divisions become more apparent.
When we created Miami Today during dark days of ethnic frictions, we realized that educated people in key jobs tended to have similar interests and information needs regardless of what ethnic groups they belonged to. We ignored ethnicity as a filter in providing news. But we couldn't ignore economic realities - the realities that create Miami's lingering division.
For from housing to health, employment to enjoyment and addiction to affliction, the two Miamis are growing apart. The upper economic sector is pulling away faster and faster from the others - the lower half is no worse off, but the spread is greater.
That is not the principal danger. The danger is that those on the lower end of the scale might give up hope that their children or their children's children could wind up in the upper half rather than the lower.
The strength of American society has always been economic mobility, tens of thousands of true rags-to-riches stories. Everybody can't be in the upper half of the income spectrum any more than all the children in Garrison Keillor's mythical Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon could meet their parents' expectations by being above average. But everyone in American society has had the opportunity to get there.
That ability to rise - often in a single generation - has been the single most important tool in knocking down Greater Miami's ethnic barriers.
Stories are legion of immigrants who arrived penniless and barely spoke English but became multimillionaires. Many persons born in the US have done the same.
So long as hope and opportunity remain to make that jump, we are not saddled with the specter of a permanent underclass - people whose children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are condemned at birth to a life that at best is no better than their parents' was.
Not that all will prosper, just that all should have the chance to do so. There is no free gold-plated lunch - but everyone should have the chance to get to the economic dining table.
Nations lacking hope face bloodshed. The permanent class system is an invitation to disaster.
Greater Miami must offer hope of a better life, not as a handout but as an opportunity that one can grasp with continued and consistent efforts. And that hope can only be communicated and realized through education.
We turned Miami's ethnic divide into an ethnic palate of colors that painted a welcoming picture to business and visitors. The schisms Time magazine trumpeted are gone.
The economic divide can't be painted out of the picture. It is real. But we can build a bridge over that divide so the able and committed can march across. And we can offer to all a hope of crossing that bridge by using our educational system as an economic tool, harnessing schools' potential not just to communicate facts but to put learning into the context of careers instead of just classrooms.
Miamians spent years trying to get ethnic groups talking with one another to end frictions. Why don't we put that same intensive energy into turning our schools into the transporter from hopelessness to career, from the bottom of the economic ladder to the top?
If we don't want a permanent class system, we need a school class system that creates learning for employment rather than for just passing tests. Tests can measure learning, but what learning? A curriculum should provide not abstract knowledge but knowledge in the context of success as a human being - not economic success alone, but certainly including economic success.
As the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce meets this weekend at its annual goals-setting session, it should create a specific and preeminent goal to help link education with enterprise, studies with salaries and classrooms with careers.
Education linked to careers could and would build bridges across the economic divides of Miami. If we build those bridges, the Best of Miami is yet to come.