Racial Tension in New England Melting Pot


WHEN Michael Sullivan, a white human services worker, tried recently to collect donations for a Martin Luther King scholarship he was organizing for a promising high school student, he was amazed at the reaction. He says a former elected official working in a business told him, ``If this were my store, I'd throw you out of here.'' The response to the fundraising drive was so bad, that in the end, Mr. Sullivan and several co-workers chipped in to fund the $300 scholarship.

As Massachusett's ``immigrant city,'' with blacks, Hispanics, Lebanese, French Canadians, Irish, Italians, Greeks, and Russians, Lawrence is struggling to pull itself into the 21st century.

The city has come a long way since August 1984, when it was wracked by race riot. It started as a dispute between two families, one Hispanic, one white, and ended as a general protest over substandard housing, and lack of voice in government.

There's a new Minority Business Council. And the formerly all-white city government now is 22 percent nonwhite.

Alex Rodriguez, chairman of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, gives Mayor Kevin Sullivan high marksfor trying to turn around the dismal legacy of his predecessors:

``The employment profile has improved, the fair-housing program has improved, so has the [minority] contracts compliance record. You have to give [Sullivan] credit for weaving a way out of the mess.''

But with few mills left, a waning high-tech boom, and slashed human services programs because of the state's budget crisis, Lawrence is on hard times. The unemployment rate is double that in the rest of the state.

That's causing friction between the earlier, generally European immigrants, who came when times were flush, and the new ones, who are not white and who are encountering a strained economy.

Greg Miller, chief executive officer of the International Institute, an advocacy and social service agency founded in 1913, says he is seeing ``an increase in nativism and xenophobia.''

There are no Hispanics in elected office, though most officials estimate that they make up one-third of the city's population.

Only two Hispanics have been appointed to the 30-member board of the Chamber of Commerce.

``We are not empowering people of color so that they become part of the mainstream,'' Mr. Miller says.

That alienation, he says, is one of the main reasons the various ethnic groups are not coming together to solve some of the city's problems: the highest teen-pregnancy and infant-mortality rates in the state, and a 50 percent high school dropout rate. He's afraid that not solving the problems will cause funding sources to dry up. ``The state is frustrated,'' he says.

``Who wants to pour money into a city where people can't come together?''

One challenge is the transiency of the residents. ``Roughly 50 percent of the population is new residents,'' says Richard Lawrence, executive director of the Greater Lawrence Community Foundation, a grantmaking institution. ``Any community that has that kind of population turnover has a job on its hands to rebuild a sense of community.''

Residents from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic often leave homes and families behind, says Elizabeth Gutierrez, director of the Greater Lawrence Ecumenical Area Ministry (GLEAM).

They travel to the islands frequently and do not commit to Lawrence. That results in children doing poorly in school, low voter turnout, and few Hispanics running for office.

Raphael Abislaiman, the director of the Gateway Cities program, which provided programs for linguistic minorities until its funding was cut, says Hispanic-Americans are not integrating themselves into the community.

``Twenty years ago the desire was integration,'' he says. ``Now another stream of thought is that each group's culture needs to be promoted and fostered. Those two things sometimes stumble up each other.''

GLEAM is working toward getting area churches to talk to one another. They don't, Ms. Gutierrez says, ``not because of racism, but because of specific theological beliefs.'' But she's starting to see more Hispanics buying homes and businesses.

Ed Lee, chairman of the Minority Business Council, chose Lawrence as the place to start his new microchip processing company because he says, ``Lawrence has great potential for minorities.''

``If you've got money, you're providing jobs, teaching people how to contribute to society, and providing a business climate.''

Many in the community say the severity of the city's problems will force people to cooperate.

``I feel real positive for the next decade,'' says Miller. At a recent meeting on teen pregnancy in the city the ``consensus ... was that the fragmentation needs to stop,'' he says.

``We need to start to come together as a community. We're going to have to really talk. And Hispanics and Southeast Asians are going to have to be at the table.''

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