Americans by Thousands Talk Race

Clinton taps national grass-roots movement in town meeting in Ohio tomorrow.

Signaling an unprecedented, grass-roots push to bridge America's racial divide, hundreds of thousands of citizens in scores of towns nationwide are engaged in sustained, serious dialogues on race, experts say.

From small circles of a dozen people in rural Iowa churches to gatherings of hundreds in inner-city Los Angeles, interracial dialogue groups have sprung up in more than 30 states during the past five years.

And as President Clinton seeks to invigorate his sluggish, six-month-old national "initiative" on race at a meeting in Akron, Ohio, tomorrow, he hopes to tap this quietly accelerating grass-roots movement.

* In Seattle, more than 450 people have attended intimate, racially mixed "Dialogue Dinners" since September.

* In Los Angeles, raw emotions and tears have also erupted as thousands of people have joined regular discussion groups since the 1992 riots led the city to establish "Days of Dialogue."

* In Prince Georges County, Md., a unique community-wide dialogue is based on group study of Bebe Moore Campbell's novel "Brothers and Sisters," set in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

"This is a new strategy that is working, and its replicating swiftly around the country," says Jonathan Hutson, co-author of a study released last week entitled "Bridging the Racial Divide: A Report on Interracial Dialogue in America." "People are tired of sitting back in despair," says Mr. Hutson, who heads the Interracial Democracy Program at the Center for Living Democracy in Brattleboro, Vt.

Socially, the movement is breaking new ground by challenging a decades-old taboo in mainstream America on the public airing of candid, private opinions on race, say community leaders and national advocates.

Politically, it represents an important countercurrent to recent, racially polarizing debates over affirmative action, welfare, and other programs designed to aid minorities. In contrast, the grass-roots dialogues emphasize Americans' shared stake in racial and ethnic harmony and social equity, especially as the US minority population grows.

Moreover, the dialogues are not "just talk," but a starting point for community problem-solving, say experts and advocates. Across the country, the groups have spawned action on issues such as unfair housing practices, police-minority relations, racial tensions at high schools, and voter-registration drives. They have also intervened in crises caused by racially driven violence, for example by helping to rebuild black churches and counselling victims of the arsons.

As the movement grows, it will create a firmer foundation for national policy debates, experts predict "It's tough to get to the level of good deliberation on policy ... when so many people have been taught not to talk about race," says Lori Villarosa of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in Flint, Mich.

In Rock Hill, S.C., a town of well-tended lawns and red-brick, one-story buildings, the sense of unease over racial issues mounted in the 1990s, as it did in many American communities, along with the Rodney King police beating, the O.J. Simpson trials, and the black church burnings in the South. But come January, signs on every road leading into the old mill town will bear a blunt, new slogan: "No Room for Racism."

The signs have little to do with overt racial hatred in the blue-collar community of 47,000, roughly a third of whom are black. Instead, the idea grew out of local concern over the town's more subtle, private racial divides.

"We want people to realize that racism is in everybody's mind," says Manning Kimmel, the radio-station owner who proposed the signs. "You can't just point the finger. It's all of us, every cotton pickin' one."

It dawned upon Mr. Kimmel and others that Rock Hill "had as much racial division in the 1990s as it ever did in the 1960s. And why? Because nobody, including me, had done anything about it," reflects Kimmel.

The high school that Kimmel's two sons attended was integrated, but in the cafeteria blacks and whites sat apart. Workplaces were mixed, but "at 5 o'clock we all turned into pumpkins and went our separate ways," he says.

Getting things moving

Many American communities share Rock Hill's frustration over the stagnant state of race relations, as well as a disenchantment with national policy, experts say. But increasingly, like Rock Hill, they are coming together in interracial groups to air concerns and propose hands-on solutions.

"People are hungry for some honest and open exchanges," says Wayne Winborne, director of program and policy research for the National Conference of Christians and Jews in New York.

The community groups enable residents to "dispel myths and break down stereotypes," says Molly Barrett, a project coordinator at the Study Circles Resource Center, which has helped establish more than 50 community-wide dialogues on race across the country in the past four years. "It's empowering," she says. "There is a feeling on the part of most people that it isn't the policymakers who are going to make the difference, it's the people at the grass roots."

Localities must take the lead in addressing race relations, agrees US Conference of Mayors head Paul Helmke, who adds that he is "upset" at the slow pace of Mr. Clinton's initiative. He has named the issue as one of three priorities for the mayor's organization, which has 500 members from cities with populations of more than 30,000.

"When we talk about racial issues in this country, the city level is really where it usually takes place," says Mr. Helmke, mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind. "Is housing steering going on? Are the police treating some people differently? When you get into the communities, people can spot unfairness when it happens, and that's what it's all about."

Most often, local efforts are led by churches and community groups, although schools, government organizations, businesses, and newspapers have also played a role. These bodies usually provide trained "facilitators," who lead forums on ethnicity and race. Although the forums vary widely, from town hall meetings to book clubs and dinner gatherings, people are always encouraged to express their emotions, air grievances, frankly debate problems and discuss possible solutions.

Candid sessions

Participants from several different cities describe the sessions as painfully candid. In Seattle's "Dialogue Dinners," for example, organizer Judy Levy has been struck by the widespread hurt, confusion, and fear displayed. "One African-American woman was talking about feeling invisible, and not feeling valued among white people. It was very painful and she was crying."

During one Los Angeles dialogue, a white man described himself as a very well-to-do Republican who had deliberately limited his family's contacts with blacks, and then cried. "After he composed himself, he said racism was terrible for our country but he didn't know whether we could do anything about it," says Avis Ridley-Thomas of the city attorney's office.

Yet while the discussions highlight differences, they also emphasize commonality. During a session of the Prince Georges County dialogue that focused on banks' discriminatory practices in lending to minorities, resident Imez Wood eased tensions with a healing thought.

"We all breathe the same air, drink the same water and bleed when the doctor pricks us with a needle," she said. "If we realize that, it becomes easier to change."

Some critics have questioned whether the interracial groups are "preaching to the choir" by attracting people who are already relatively tolerant and open-minded. "Even for folks in the choir, it's hard," responds Mr. Winborne of the National Conference. "You can take people who have been working on race relations for years, separate them into groups by race, and the conversations are different."

"We aren't going to convert the people who are out there doing hate crimes," acknowledges Ms. Villarosa. "But while this may not change folks who are really intolerant, at least it lets them know they don't have the implicit support of others."

In Rock Hill, some worry that the "No Room for Racism" signs might be vandalized. But if that happens, says city human relations commissioner Eliza Mills, "we'll have [new ones] up again the next day."

Groups Sponsoring Dialogues On Race

Study Circles Resource Center (SCRC)

P.O. Box 203

697 Pomfret Street

Pomfret, CT 06258

(860) 928-2616

e-mail: scrc@neca.com

SCRC helps communities use study circles to strengthen ties between diverse groups and solve local problems. SCRC is currently supporting 55 cities with study circles on race relations.

The National Conference (TNC)

71 Fifth Ave.

New York, NY 10003

(212) 206-0006

website: http://members.aol.com/natlconf

TNC has 66 offices in 35 states and Washington, D.C. It is currently helping eight cities with projects using dialogue as a first step in creating coalitions across racial and religious barriers.

The Center for Living Democracy

289 Fox Farm Road

Battleboro, VT 05301

(802) 254-1234

The center uses research, education, and publishing to encourage community groups to bridge racial divides.

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