Americans by Thousands Talk Race Clinton Taps National Grass-Roots Movement in Town Meeting in Ohio Tomorrow

Article excerpt

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 grass-roots movement. * 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 Angeles riots. "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 Brattleboro, Vt. 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 national advocates. 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," reflects Kimmel. The high school that Kimmel's two sons attended was integrated, but in the cafeteria blacks and whites sat apart. …


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