Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Listening to Other Voices

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Listening to Other Voices

Article excerpt

President Bill Clinton has begun speaking out against the divisiveness that fouls public discourse in America. At a time when sophisticated demagogues preaching hate draw headlines and media attention, while voices of good will are routinely ignored, his point is well taken.

Today the voices of division rule the voting booth and the airwaves, while the voices of inclusion are distressingly muted and dispirited.

Fewer than four in 10 eligible Americans voted in our last national elections. That turnout is so low that two-thirds of the congressional seats were won with fewer votes than unsuccessful candidates polled in the same districts in 1992. Yet despite evidence that citizen participation in public life has been in a steep decline over the past 20 years, there are signs of hope, if one knows where to look in the St. Louis area.

On June 29, people from this area joined hundreds of Americans in more than 30 cities in an unusually honest public conversation about social tensions and how to work together. They were energized by a deep-seated yearning that has been virtually ignored by politicians and leaders who are setting the tone for our civic life - a yearning to emerge from our communities of isolation, to stop the bickering and shouting from separate camps and to work together to solve our problems.

The compelling premise of "A National Conversation on Race, Ethnicity and Culture," organized by The National Conference and the National Endowment of the Humanities, was that Americans of good will are fed up with the shrill, divisive tone of recent debates on hot-button issues like affirmative action, street crime, crumbling schools and immigration.

These debates involve more than just differing political philosophies; they are being transformed into "zero-sum" conflicts in which no group wins unless others lose. Outright racist demagogues aren't the only leaders tapping into mistrust, hostility and fear of the "other." Even mainstream, more respectable politicians are demonizing entire communities. People of color are depicted as stealing jobs from "angry white men" through affirmative action. Resentment is voiced against the economic inroads made by Asians.

Those of us who organized the June 29 "conversation" have a different vision of America, an inclusive vision in which people of diverse backgrounds can build enough trust to start addressing our dire social problems cooperatively.

In our multiracial community meeting, we publicly confronted and communicated our own prejudices and attitudes about groups different from our own. We explored the sources of damaging racial and ethnic stereotypes. And we started talking about what it will take for our different communities to overcome their differences and tackle common problems together.

In St. …

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