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Guest Column: Lehigh has been discriminated against for years

Evidence that demands a verdict

September 19, 2011
By MIKE SWORDS , Lehigh Acres Citizen

We believe that honest conversations are essential for successful leadership. In working with leaders I have seen the problems that occur when leaders are not forthright in their communications.

Recently, the Lehigh Acres Economic Development Board, a non-profit 501 c(3) organization began the process of dialoguing with the Lee County commissioners about helping us in Lehigh Acres to improve the economic condition in our community. Overall we were encouraged by the commissioners but there were some responses that we believe need addressing.

"Denial, the past is not relevant for today's discussion, let's move on"

Denial of the relevance of the past and acceptance of responsibility for the past is a classic response to avoid responsibility. The reason is that most people refuse to think, learn, face unpleasant issues, or risk criticism.

"We need a broader solution, so we don't upset the current structure"

During a meeting with Commissioner Tammy Hall, the Lehigh Acres Economic Development Board asked her to support specific funding to us for our Economic Development office. She said, "that what we need is a broader solution, one that encompasses all of the unincorporated areas."

We agree the county does need a process where application can be made by all unincorporated areas for economic development funding. However, for the reasons stated below, we don't think this is an adequate solution for decades of discriminatory practices against the Lehigh Acres community.

The uniqueness of Lehigh Acres as the second largest population in Lee County, approximately 87,000 according to the 2010 census, the second largest land mass, approximately 100 square miles, numerous infrastructure deficits. For example: overabundance of wells, septic tanks, road resurfacing needs, road construction, underserved medically due to ease of access compared to the rest of the county and inadequate commercial development.

Therefore, we would suggest these unique and overwhelming challenges that no other area in the county faces to this magnitude, necessitate a narrow and specific solution.

An extensive body of literature in the social sciences exists that demonstrate the extent of discrimination effects on social and economic outcomes. Hence, it is our contention, to address historical discriminatory practices against Lehigh Acres, it is appropriate and necessary to create a narrow and specific solution to address cumulative disadvantages created over decades, through systemic and structural discrimination.

Systemic discrimination refers to patterns of behavior, policies or practices that are part of the structures of an organization, and which create or perpetuate disadvantage, i.e., unincorporated communities. It has a broad impact on industry, profession, or geographic area.

Some sociological investigators distinguish between institutional discrimination and "structural discrimination" (sometimes called structured discrimination).

The former focuses upon the norms and practices within an institution, the latter upon the interactions among institutions, interactions that produce discrimination outcomes against particular groups, in this instance, unincorporated communities.

An important feature of structural discrimination is that it cannot be reduced to individual prejudice to the single function of an institution.

Structural discrimination produces cumulative disadvantage over time. It may reflect the impact of explicit discrimination, but it is likely to also reflect other social and economic factors.

For instance, differences in the extent to which wealth is transmitted between unincorporated communities versus incorporated communities would be a measure of cumulative disadvantage.

A key reason to be concerned about systemic and structural discrimination is its potential to create cumulative disadvantage in geographic areas. If there is little evidence of cumulative disadvantage, then the motivation to search for evidence of cumulative discrimination is reduced.

Hence, I discuss below the importance of recognizing cumulative disadvantage as well as cumulative discrimination and its effects on communities.

Why Be Concerned with Cumulative Disadvantage?

Studies of cumulative discrimination provide a measure of the impact of discrimination. Efforts to measure discrimination at a decision-point within a specific domain may seriously understate the impact of discrimination. The primary problem is that measures of discrimination that focus on discrimination at a particular place and point in time may provide only limited information on the dynamic and cumulative nature of discrimination. However, if a researcher were to perform a retrospective study, a form of a longitudinal study that looks back in time, he may discover a trend. For instance, if a researcher looks back in time (60 years to the creation of Lehigh Acres) he may discover there is a trend.

Cumulative discriminatory effects, is the evidence that indicates cumulative disadvantage creates lower incomes, much lower wealth levels, poorer health, lower educational achievement, lower quality housing, etc. On virtually every measure, there are outcome gaps and these gaps are large.

While one can conclude it is indisputable that huge disparities exist between equitable appropriation of funds in infrastructure, capital improvement projects and human service revenues to Lehigh Acres, an unincorporated community in Lee County.

This past history raises two salient questions:

(1) To what extent is current cumulative disadvantage the result of cumulative effects of past discrimination? The inability of past generations to receive good educations, access higher-quality jobs, own houses, or accumulate wealth may have large impacts on today's generation of residents. The magnitude of the effect of past discrimination on today's economic differentials is highly important in the debate over whether there is an ongoing need to provide compensatory policy attention to Lehigh Acres in areas such as labor market representation, infrastructure and human services.

(2) Given a past history of indifference and systemic and structural discriminatory practices, to what extent does that history still influence behaviors and decisions? The history of discrimination in Lee County Government combined with large ongoing differentials in outcomes, places the burden of proof on those who argue past discriminatory practices (history) is no longer important.

It is precisely because of this past history of pervasive discrimination in virtually all aspects of governing and equitable distribution of wealth, that the potential for significant cumulative discriminatory effects must be taken seriously.

The norms and practices within Lee County Government, and interactions among institutions, interactions that produce unfair and inequitable outcomes against the unincorporated area of Lehigh Acres, must be changed.

Of particular interest to our community is the role of public or institutional policies in mitigating or reducing economic differentials now, and over time.

If there is any doubt as to the veracity of the assertions that the county has failed for decades to fairly appropriate revenues to our community, we would ask the commissioners to commission and fund through the UNINCORPORATED MSTU an economist from one of our esteemed universities to perform a retrospective study.

Looking at the 60 year history of Lee County's appropriations to Lehigh Acres will serve to substantiate or exonerate historical systemic and structural discrimination.

There is Evidence that Demands a Verdict!

Michael Swords is CEO of SDS Accounting & Tax Solutions and active leader in the Lehigh community. He can be emailed at:



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