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

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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. …