Kindness, common courtesy: vital aids to racial harmony, rights leaders say

How far can common courtesy, civility, and kindness go to help ease tensions and promote mutual respect between the races in the US? This question was put to civil rights, religious, and civic leaders from various parts of the county, some of whom have voiced concern that impending cutbacks in government programs relied on by many minority communities could bring increased racial friction.

These leaders agreed that even small acts of kindness and cooperation -- including, sometimes, the refusal to retaliate in kind in the face of injustice -- can go a long way toward quelling both private disputes and the well-publicized serious outbreaks of tension between blacks and whites. Some cited specific instances of individual deeds not only stemming belligerence but actually saving lives.

Representatives of such key civil rights organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League said that efforts to promote greater understanding and kindness would continue to play a major role in their fight to end racial discrimination and violent confrontations in this country.

Nevertheless, some of those interviewed by the Monitor stressed emphatically that a stronger regard for one's fellow man could not and should not serve as a replacement for better housing, more jobs, and equal opportunities for minorities. At the same time, some insisted that instilling the qualities in people that resulted in genuine concern for others could result in tangible social progress for all Americans.

For example, the private, non-profit Citizens Policy Center (CPC) here has attracted nationwide attention with its efforts to help minority youth become better school and community leaders. A CPC program to help blacks youths attending the Thomas Jefferson High School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn has not only steered many young blacks away from trouble with the law, it has helped turn many into law-abiding community activists.

The CPC effort in brooklyn has attracted the attention of the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation (NRC), a prestigious non-profit national group devoted to improving inner city neighborhoods. NRC is now seriously considering funding similar leadership-building programs.

"When you give young people training in interpersonal relationships," says NRC spokesperson Meg Armstrong, "you're also dealing with . . . ways of easing racial tensions."

On a basic personal level, common courtesy is good "common sense," says Jim Williams, chief spokesman for the National Urban League. He points out that it can help prevent small tensions from becoming larger confrontations. Suppose a black person is on a crowded subway or bus, he elaborated, and a white person steps on your foot, or vice versa. "If the person doesn't say 'excuse me', the incident can have racial overtones . . . Unless you let the person know there is no malice involved, they interpret it as malice."

Mr. Williams, who is black, also tries to refuse to get angry when there is an intentional slight, such as when a New York city cab driver passes him by just because he is black -- still a common problem for blacks in many cities. He believes getting angry doesn't solve the situation, and in fact only makes him feel worse.

But Paul Brock with the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) here recently filed charges against a taxi driver who discriminated against him, and the driver was fined.

Beryl Kawkins, another spokesperson for the NAACP here contends that being courteous doesn't mean you have to be a "milk toast" -- that you can, as Mr. Brock did, stand up for your rights in a civil, but strong manner.

Courtesy and kindness can also be directly and effectively applied to very tense situations such as the riots in the black community in Miami last year, according to black psychologist Marvin Dunn of Florida International University in Miami.

"In the midst of our crisis," he says, "we had black people who were going out of their way to protect and assist [white] people in what is a typical good samaritan fashion. I think the death toll could have been considerably higher had we not done that kind of thing."

On the juvenile justice front, more common courtesy can be employed to reduce juvenile delinquency, maintains Harry Swagger of the National Juvenile Justice Law Center in St. Louis. But he sees very little evidence of it at present.

"If police approach a black youth in a hostile manner," he says, without using common courtesy, "the police may get a more hostile reaction back." In turn, he adds, this could perpetuate the black youth's racial hatred throughout the juvenile justice process.

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