National Dialogue on Race Moves to Arizona

White House conference begins today, in a state still struggling with its own turbulent history over race relations and policy.

With a sense of deja vu, Arizonans find themselves once again cast in the national limelight over race relations.

Ten years ago, the issue was over cancellation of a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. This time, the spotlight's glare is cast by President Clinton's initiative to conduct a national dialogue on race, with Phoenix hosting a two-day White House conference that begins today.

Arizona, once a relatively homogeneous population of Anglo residents seeking a retirement or winter haven, has undergone a dramatic shift in the past decade that reflects the changing demographic makeup of the US as a whole. As such, it has become a crucible of late 20th-century race relations, with Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, native Americans, and Anglos all searching for racial harmony.

While there remain signs of prejudice, some minority participants in the campaign for civil rights say much has changed here. "I think there has been some improvement. I see where people of color are advancing in civic as well as private business," says the Rev. Warren Stewart, an African-American leader in the civil rights movement here.

Bumpy path to greater racial equality

Arizona's path of progress, however, has been anything but smooth. In 1987, then-Gov. Evan Mecham canceled the King holiday, and national black leaders staged an economic boycott of the state, resulting in millions of dollars in lost convention, hotel, and visitors' business.

The National Football League even dropped plans to play the 1993 Super Bowl in Phoenix, in an effort not to become embroiled in the dispute. But Arizonans, smarting from the sting of being labeled "racist" by outsiders, went about changing things.

A King holiday was approved by voters in 1992 - the first in the nation to be endorsed by a public referendum and a major reason that Clinton chose Arizona for today's forum. And in 1996, the state gained some redemption when it hosted the Super Bowl, in which Arizona's multicultural makeup was a prominent theme.

Meanwhile, immigrants have found Arizona a more welcoming environment than either Texas or California, because of the absence of anti-immigration rhetoric like that which inflamed both states in the early 1990s. Today, immigrants from Mexico and Central America in metropolitan Phoenix number more than 300,000, and their influence is felt in everything from the music of northern Mexico that is heard on the airwaves, to supermarkets that are patterned after the mercados of their homeland.

Still a way to go

Yet individual incidents remind everyone that race is still as prickly an issue here as the saguaro cactus that thrive in this Southwest desert city, the sixth largest in the US.

The latest event came in July, when US Border Patrol agents and suburban Chandler, Ariz., police conducted a five-day sweep in search of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America. More than 400 illegal immigrants were picked up, but the dragnet also snared hundreds of US-born Hispanic residents, some of whom were detained multiple times. A $35 million lawsuit alleging civil-rights violations is pending.

Alfredo Gutierrez, a longtime Phoenix political figure and former power broker at the Arizona Legislature, says he sees other disturbing developments as well. While minorities have made gains in the past decade in areas such as equal housing, he says, clouds loom on the horizon that may jeopardize those gains.

For example, one state senator is advocating a referendum to scale back affirmative action, similar to Proposition 209 in California. And for the past three years, Arizona has been wrangling over a statewide school-construction finance plan, with the courts finding that the current system favors wealthier neighborhoods and discriminates against minority-populated schools.

"There is being created ... because of this changing nature of technology, a permanent underclass that's being left behind," says Mr. Gutierrez. "It is overwhelmingly minority."

But there also appears to be a concerted effort to tackle the problem of racism head on. At a recent planning breakfast for the Jan. 16 event honoring Martin Luther King Jr., participants were asked to talk with one another about their personal experiences with discrimination. That approach may signal a shift away from turning to government programs, toward more individual, one-on-one solutions.

"As it is done on a more individual basis, it will help improve relationships," says Mr. Stewart. "But it must continue to go upward [and penetrate] the bureaucracy of business and government."

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