2000-09-06 Lakeshore Press Diversity promoters talk to the Chamber of Commerce

Diversity promoters talk to the Chamber of Commerce
Lakeshore Press

Some leaders of local diversity groups say the average person wouldn’t pick out Holland as a racist community, but it exists here as an “invisible disease” that needs to be eliminated.

That was part of the message that Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance Director Gail Harrison and others brought to about 200 members of the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce Tuesday morning.

“We don’t have a cross burning on lawns, but you can’t interpret that as ‘all is well in Holland.’” Said Harrison, whose group aims to promote a climate where ethnic differences are not only accepted but celebrated.

Harrison said most overt racism in Ottawa and Kent counties has gone “underground,” but still exists in the form of job and housing discrimination and police enforcement.

She cited a black family that left the community because the wife couldn’t find professional work with a Hope College education degree, and another who couldn’t find housing because she spoke with a heavy Spanish accent.

A study of the Ottawa County justice system found that Hispanic youths were locked up overnight for first-time felony offenses 10 times more often than whites.

“Ironically, the lack of overt hatred perpetuates racism here,” Harrison said, noting that until people start realizing how racism discrimination hurts everyone, they are likely to continue encouraging it.

The Ethnic Diversity Alliance has planned a series of town meetings and leadership conferences this fall and winter to explore, understand and create strategies to change prevailing attitudes toward diversity.

Also participating in the conference will be the Holland-area African American Support Group, Alliance for Cultural and Ethnic Harmony, and Latin Americans United for Progress.

“People need to hear from people of color how racism exists in our town,” said Harrison, who is white. “To us, discrimination may be subtle … because white people don’t see or experience these things, but (racial discrimination) is not subtle to a person of color.”

Despite the South’s image of racial prejudice, Harrison said eight out of 10 of the most segregated citifies – including Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland – are in the North.

Holland, which has a 20 percent Hispanic make-up, also needs to look at embracing diversity for its own well-being, studies show that “white flight,” the phenomenon where Caucasians move out of a community in large numbers, begins to occur when minority populations begin reaching 30 percent of residents.

“We’d like to see a community here that embraces diversity, not runs from it,” she said.

The ethnic make-up of the US is changing dramatically, she said. The country’s predominately white majority will decline to 50 percent of the population in the next 50 years, statistical predictions indicate.

For business people, the changing cultural demographics is one that companies need to take notice of because minorities today have tremendous buying power, estimated at $1.1 trillion. The US Hispanic population is growing fastest and is expected to reach nearly 100 million, one-quarter of the population, by 2050.

“You want to treat customers like you would want to be treated,” said Pete Visser, director of associate relations and diversity for D&W Food Centers. That means seeking out minority employees and vendors who reflect the look of your customer base, he said.

As co-chairman of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce Employer’s Coalition for Healing Racism, Kisser sees doing away with stereotypes and racial jokes as one way to start fighting back.

“Just decide you’re not going to tell another ethnic joke, and when others do it, point out that you don’t appreciate (the joke,” he said.