2000-09-06 Holland Sentinel "Diversity talk: End racial indignities"

Diversity talk: End racial indignities
The Holland Sentinel

Telephone calls by a Latino woman, inquiring about houses for sale in a heavy Spanish accent, go unreturned.

An African-American girl riding the school bus home is referred to as "burnt toast" by fellow students.

They are the kind of indignities minorities in the area face every day. They are the kind of indignities that - as the minority population in Ottawa County and the Holland area soars - needs to stop, diversity experts told business leaders on Tuesday.

To make her point, Gail Harrison asked the roughly 150 attendees - most of them white - at the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce's Early Bird Breakfast to stand if they wanted to be treated like African-Americans are treated. Everybody stayed seated.

"This tells me you know how black people are treated. You don't want it for yourself. Why are you willing to accept it for other people?" asked Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance in Grand Haven.

"We need to take race relations personally," said Harrison, who spoke on the topic "The Changing Racial Demographics: Are We Prepared?"

Focus on the topic comes at a time when the region's minority population is rising rapidly, altering the social demographics.

U.S. Census Bureau figures released last week show that Ottawa County's minor population grew at a significantly faster rate than the white population did during the 1990s - 54 percent for Hispanics, 39 percent for blacks and 21 percent for whites.

Allegan County's Hispanic population grew 49 percent during the '90s, more than double the rate of its white population.

"Are you going to embrace that change or are you going to be fearful of it?" asked Pete Visser, director of associate relations/diversity for Grand Rapids based D&W Food Centers. "Embrace it in a way that is comfortable for you, but understand the fact that we have an opportunity to embrace each other."

Visser said business leaders need to change with the region's changing demographics and look at issues, such as whether their workforce and suppliers are representative of the community around them.

"Does your business reflect, or is it start to reflect, what your community is starting to look like?" asked Visser, who has worked with the Institute for Healing Racism, an effort involving the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce that explores race relations in Kent County.

"As business people, we need to get involved in fairness and justice and equity for the right reasons. Our brothers and sisters of color expect nothing less than that, and nothing more," he said.

The Holland Area Chamber tackled the topic during its monthly breakfast in response to work from its Diversity Task Force. Other initiatives being explored as a result of the task force's work are a racism program similar to Grand Rapids' Institute for Healing Racism, and a directory or trade show for minority-owned businesses, said Chamber Vice President Chris Byrnes.

The Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance will sponsor the Ottawa County Summit on Racism at Hope College on Feb 13. Preliminary town meetings are planned for 630pm Sept 28 at St. Francis Parish Ministry at 195 W 13th in Holland, and 10 am Nov 2 at Grand Haven Outreach Church, 17 S Second St.