Signaling an unprecedented, grass-roots push to bridge
America's racial divide, hundreds of thousands of citizens in
scores of towns nationwide are engaged in sustained, serious
dialogues on race, experts say.
From small circles of a dozen people in rural Iowa churches
to gatherings of hundreds in inner-city Los Angeles, interracial
dialogue groups have sprung up in more than 30 states during the
past five years.
And as President Clinton seeks to invigorate his sluggish,
six-month-old national "initiative" on race at a meeting in Akron,
Ohio, tomorrow, he hopes to tap this quietly accelerating
* In Seattle, more than 450 people have attended intimate,
racially mixed "Dialogue Dinners" since September.
* In Los Angeles, raw emotions and tears have also erupted as
thousands of people have joined regular discussion groups since the
1992 riots led the city to establish "Days of Dialogue."
* In Prince Georges County, Md., a unique community-wide
dialogue is based on group study of Bebe Moore Campbell's novel
"Brothers and Sisters," set in the aftermath of the 1992 Los
"This is a new strategy that is working, and its replicating
swiftly around the country," says Jonathan Hutson, co-author of a
study released last week entitled "Bridging the Racial Divide: A
Report on Interracial Dialogue in America." "People are tired of
sitting back in despair," says Mr. Hutson, who heads the
Interracial Democracy Program at the Center for Living Democracy in
Socially, the movement is breaking new ground by challenging
a decades-old taboo in mainstream America on the public airing of
candid, private opinions on race, say community leaders and
Politically, it represents an important countercurrent to
recent, racially polarizing debates over affirmative action,
welfare, and other programs designed to aid minorities. In
contrast, the grass-roots dialogues emphasize Americans' shared
stake in racial and ethnic harmony and social equity, especially as
the US minority population grows.
Moreover, the dialogues are not "just talk," but a starting
point for community problem-solving, say experts and advocates.
Across the country, the groups have spawned action on issues such
as unfair housing practices, police-minority relations, racial
tensions at high schools, and voter-registration drives. They have
also intervened in crises caused by racially driven violence, for
example by helping to rebuild black churches and counselling
victims of the arsons.
As the movement grows, it will create a firmer foundation for
national policy debates, experts predict "It's tough to get to the
level of good deliberation on policy ... when so many people have
been taught not to talk about race," says Lori Villarosa of the
Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in Flint, Mich.
In Rock Hill, S.C., a town of well-tended lawns and
red-brick, one-story buildings, the sense of unease over racial
issues mounted in the 1990s, as it did in many American
communities, along with the Rodney King police beating, the O.J.
Simpson trials, and the black church burnings in the South. But
come January, signs on every road leading into the old mill town
will bear a blunt, new slogan: "No Room for Racism."
The signs have little to do with overt racial hatred in the
blue-collar community of 47,000, roughly a third of whom are black.
Instead, the idea grew out of local concern over the town's more
subtle, private racial divides.
"We want people to realize that racism is in everybody's
mind," says Manning Kimmel, the radio-station owner who proposed
the signs. "You can't just point the finger. It's all of us, every
cotton pickin' one."
It dawned upon Mr. Kimmel and others that Rock Hill "had as
much racial division in the 1990s as it ever did in the 1960s. And
why? Because nobody, including me, had done anything about it,"
The high school that Kimmel's two sons attended was
integrated, but in the cafeteria blacks and whites sat apart. …