No-holds-barred talks shed new light on race relations

A white: ''I've got an understanding I wish I'd had before.'' A black: ''I feel a relief of pressure.'' It was, he said, the first time he felt whites had ever really listened to him.

A white: ''Blacks are saying things to me they've never said before.''

For five hours that day, a group of some 30 businessmen, journalists, and civil servants had sat at a rectangular arrangement of tables in a meeting room here, listening to each other's comments on race relations - a topic still very much in the news. About one-third of the participants were black, the rest white.

For many, it was a day devoted to the most frank and helpful exchange of views they had ever had on the topic of improving understanding between blacks and whites.

Directing the two-day seminar was Charles H. King Jr., a black who is president of Urban Crisis Center here and a former staff member of the President's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder. In 1968 that body had concluded: ''Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal.''

Since that report came out, there have been considerable private and governmental efforts to close some of the gaps between blacks and whites in economic status and opportunity. But, as seen in the recent mayoral contest in Chicago, which had a definite racial content, and in yet another, though minor, confrontation between white police and black youth in a Miami ghetto, the goal of good relations and understanding between Americans of different races is far from fully attained.

A 1981 report by the US Commission on Civil Rights concluded: ''The blatant racial and sexual discrimination that originated in our often-forgotten past, however, continues to effect the present.'' And a commission report last November said: ''The suspicion, therefore, remains that discrimination continues to have a major effect on blacks, Hispanics, and women in their struggle to find jobs commensurate with their qualifications and experience.''

One way of moving toward better understanding between blacks and whites is honest communication. The King seminar succeeded in bringing this about to a degree this reporter has seldom seen.

The sessions have been going on for more than 10 years now. To some, the tactics used by Mr. King to prompt honest remarks could seem harsh.

Ingelborg Jelley, who works at an Atlanta packaging company, still vividly recalls her experience while attending a session 10 years ago: ''I was so shook up during the course I was in tears.'' But she adds, ''I learned much more about black people and how they felt about white people.''

More recently, the Atlanta Police Department and the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution newspapers have been sending employees to the King course.

On the first day of the seminar this reporter attended, King began by playing a tape, several minutes long, of a man saying he works, lives, and dreams ''just like you.'' He then went around the room asking everyone what they had heard. Most of the blacks had heard ''a black man'' (which was correct). Most of the whites heard ''a man,'' or ''a voice.'' For some reason they had a hard time saying they had heard a black man, though, looking back, this was fairly obvious.

During the same session, King asked participants what they considered the major cause of the problems faced by urban blacks today. On the first go-around, no whites said whites were the problem, though this was the answer he sought and eventually obtained from most of the white participants.

Early in the day, a number of whites seemed to deny that racism on the part of blacks and whites was a major problem, but by the end of the day, most admitted that problem was significant.

At times he yelled at some participants, even calling some of their replies dishonest.

''Whites rarely indict themselves,'' said King.

''Whites do not like blacks when they (blacks) get angry,'' he said. But only blacks who are angry at white people are telling the whole truth about their problems, he said.

For many, the most informative part of the seminar was the frank admission by black participants that they size up whites to figure out what they (blacks) can and cannot say in front of them without causing problems. During lunch break, several blacks mentioned that they do that every day with whites, not just on the job, but at social events.

The course produced positive changes on the job, says Leo Benatar, who, as president of one Atlanta company, sent a number of his employees to the course. But, he adds, not much time was spent on how to apply the new awareness of participants. Some other programs are less confrontational and spend more time building team work, he said.

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