MIAMI — TRYING TO PUT her best face forward, this city likes to boast that she is an international city.
What that translates to, however, is that Miami is so awash in ethnic and racial diversity that it works at cross purpose. Instead of the cultural melting pot associated with earlier American history, this ethnic and racial diversity is constructed as a series of highly defended city-states, flags held high, daring the other guy to cross a line or utter a single word that can be seen as an insult -- knock-the-chip-off-my-shoulder stuff.
Miami's winter tourist season kicked off the other day with what the headline writers diplomatically called a ''disturbance.'' At its root was the acquittal by a jury of six Miami police accused of violating the civil rights of a local drug pusher by beating him to death and leaving their shoe marks on his face. The pusher was Puerto Rican. None of the cops was. They were black, Cuban-American and what we have come to call in this town Anglo-American, a term that applies to anyone who is not Hispanic or black.
Allegedly, the acquittal in federal court so aggravated the Puerto Rican community that it could not contain itself and went on a rampage. Closer to the truth, some members of the Puerto Rican community carried a legitimate, non-violent grievance to the streets, while most of those looting and burning buildings, attacking reporters and TV cameramen and shouting words of defiance at the police, were teen-aged street toughs who saw an opportunity to pick up a TV set for free.
If any of the six police officers charged in the beating of the drug pusher had been Puerto Rican, however, the ''disturbance'' probably would not have happened. That's where the battle lines of diversity are defined.
As I understand it, a white cop shooting a black crime suspect is not tolerable in the black community; a black cop doing it is. A Cuban or black cop stomping on a Puerto Rican drug pusher is not acceptable, either.
Nor is a Cuban being chosen over a black for superintendent of schools, or a black being selected over a WASP for chief of police. Miami is apportioned by heritage and is held together only by the thinnest of strands.
In Miami, you often are known more by your heritage than by your name or deeds. During political campaigns, candidates are more identified by nationality than party; when juries are seated, the issue is not the competence of the jurors but their race and nationality; criminal acts seemingly are greeted with relief if it is learned that the suspect was of the same background as the victim.
So segregated is this town that there are chambers of commerce for all. There is a Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce but there also is a Latin Chamber of Commerce. There is another Chamber of Commerce for blacks as well as one for women. There is one for Colombians and there is one for Argentinians. There are others; I lose track.
It is rare that you see a local car without a bumper strip boasting of some nationality, or a small national flag hanging from the rear view mirror. Thus, cutoffs and near-accidents are reacted to by referring to ''those damned [choose your nationality].'' Then fingers get pointed, fists waved and, sometimes, pistols fired.
All of this adds up to carrying racial diversity too far.
Historically, this separation can be traced to the white power structure but, in Miami, there are two power structures: the traditional downtown white structure and the growing Cuban-American power structure. All those out of power point the finger of blame to those in power.
Similar conditions exist in every other urban center of America. But Miami is a city of overreaction. It is a city whose heart flutters whenever an unfounded rumor is spread of Fidel Castro's mortality, or of an impending attack on Israel. It causes a boycott call by local blacks when a proclamation of welcome for visiting Nelson Mandela is withdrawn by the city commission because Mr. Mandela spoke favorably about Mr. Castro, Muammar el Kadafi and Yasser Arafat; both actions being overreactions. It bleeds over politics in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Jamaica and Panama, among others.
The only time I can recall anyone saying the whole town was together on any one subject was when the Miami Dolphins won back-to-back Super Bowls a decade-and-a-half ago. There needs to be a better criterion -- or a better team.