Chicago's 'getting to know you' attempt to ease racial tension

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Chicago, widely regarded as one of the most racially polarized cities in the United States, is starting to look to common bonds amid its ethnic differences to forge a more united future.

On the theory that diversity is a plus and that hearing differing opinions can help, Mayor Harold Washington, the Chicago Police Department, and local ethnic groups themselves are working to expand their cultural horizons.

The police department plans to give all officers and supervisors a three- to five-day training course in September to improve their awareness of and sensitivity to cultural differences.

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''We hope it will have an impact on attitudes, but basically we're trying to change behavior - to make it more professional,'' says first deputy police superintendent John J. Jemilo.

Mayor Washington is cooperating with the American Jewish Committee and the Illinois Consultation on Ethnicity in Education, a research organization supported by a mix of ethnic and minority groups, to sponsor a series of summer lunch discussions in a variety of neighborhoods. Featured are Chicago and national leaders of ethnic, women's, and minority groups.

The mayor, who sends an array of top aides to most sessions, has spoken at one meeting so far, comparing the struggles and humanitarian goals of Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

''We bring different experiences, but there's a common thread,'' the mayor said.

At the most recent luncheon, featuring chicken that was fried Wiener schnitzel-style in one of Chicago's German neighborhoods, Cuban emigre Marcelino Miyares, president of a Hispanic television station here, and Washington-based Ukrainian transplant Myron Wasylyk spoke of the heroic efforts of their people as American immigrants and of changes they hope to see back in their homelands. But in time both men spoke of more mundane, everyday concerns here: the struggle for better jobs, more help for small business, and neighborhood improvement.

The aim of the series, beyond understanding more about each group's particular history and triumphs, is to develop an agenda of common concerns to be given the presidential candidates in the fall. As Pamela DeFiglio, whose mother is Polish and father is Italian, puts it: ''Jews don't just care about Israel and Poles don't just care about Poland - the first step is to talk and realize how many things you have in common.''

''We don't really believe in special-interest politics - we believe in group politics,'' confirms the American Jewish Committee's David Biederman. He suggested that in addition to the political agenda, the discussions at these luncheons might well also yield a valuable book on ''how to cook chicken in 12 different languages.''

At a Democratic National Committee hearing here several weeks ago, Mayor Washington urged blacks and white ethnics to unite in defeating President Reagan in the fall.

But the mayor also clearly hopes that Chicago's new efforts at an ethnic city alliance will produce some local benefits. In announcing the discussion series, he said he hopes that by looking at Chicago as a mosaic of ethnic groups instead of as a city of blacks and whites, more common ground could be found that would ease racial tensions and help dispel what he termed the city's ''growing reputation'' as a city of racial strife.

There is a need. In recent months charges of racism have been hurled with increased vigor here by all sides. One black family who tried to move into a new house in a white southeastern Chicago neighborhood was soon driven out by steady harassment. And the mayor himself is frequently criticized these days for capitalizing on racial tension to solidify black support and of failing to try to broaden his base. The mayor complains that the Chicago press has failed to cover his frequent visits to white ethnic neighborhoods.

A survey earlier this year by the Chicago Reporter, a monthly newsletter on racial issues, disclosed that many white ethnic leaders have the impression that the city administration favors blacks over whites and neglects white neighborhoods. An April Sun-Times/Channel 5 News poll confirmed that 58 percent of the city's white population felt that the mayor had not tried hard enough to win white support for his policies.

And several weeks ago some 20 neighborhood groups from the city's far northwest and southwest sides, under the logo of a ''Save our Neighborhoods, Save our City Coalition,'' met in one of Chicago's more elegant hotels to draft a ''white ethnic agenda'' of action concerns. Organizers of the conference accused the mayor of practicing racial politics but insisted they were not guilty of racism themselves (as some have charged) in their own concern about the declining value of housing in their neighborhoods.

In the mayor's defense, another group of more than 100 liberal religious, civic, and business leaders signed the ''Chicago Covenant'' condemning racism and bigotry and urging respect for the mayor's office.

David Roth, Midwest director of the American Jewish Committee's Institute on Pluralism and Group Identity and initiator of the luncheon series, says he thinks many blacks have tended to be advocates rather than coalitionists. He says he thinks he sees the start of a change now with Mayor Washington as well.

''You depolarize by recognizing more, not fewer, groups. I think the mayor is beginning to see diversity as an ally and polarization as the enemy. He's saying many of the right things. . . . People want their differences to be noticed and appreciated. Once people get together and talk, it becomes very hard for them to hate each other. It's a way to neutralize the opposition.''

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