2001-02-09 Holland Sentinel Summit shows racism won't be tolerated

Summit shows racism won't be tolerated
Holland Sentinel

Me, a racist …?

I was reading an editorial in the Muskegon Chronicle one morning about 12 years ago. The editorial writer was challenging persons like me who felt we were combating racism through an internalized and personal philosophy of respecting all persons regardless of their race; of treating everyone equally; of not harboring racist thoughts, and not engaging in racist conduct.

That, however, was not good enough according to the editorial writer. He argued that unless you were actively engaged in addressing, opposing, and working to dismantle the effects of racism, you were allowing it to flourish and perpetuate its ugly lineage. In short, you were a racist.

I can remember tossing the newspaper aside in disgust. Me, a racist…? I certainly did not think so. I was a preacher’s kid who had been taught well the commandment to love they neighbor. I played alongside two African-American teammates on a Little League baseball team growing up in Spring Lake. My freshman year at Hope College I was one of the Kollen Hall guys who made it a point to talk with an African-American student who lived down the hall. I attended law school in Washington, D.C., a very diverse city. Who did this editorial writer think he was, anyway?

Seven or eight years later, having settled down in Spring Lake with my wife and three children, something terrible happened. In the middle of the night a burning cross was planted in an African-American family’s front yard just a few miles from our home. I was shocked. I felt as if that burning cross had been placed in my front yard. Burning crosses appearing under the cover of darkness in the 1990s? I was outraged. I was also ashamed. How could this happen in my community, a community of nice people?

I wanted to do something in response to this ugly act, but I did not know what to do. As I processed my feelings about the situation I thought again about that editorial. It made more sense to me now. Racism does exist here in West Michigan. Many are blind to it. If we do not encounter it, there is a tendency to not believe it’s out there. It’s easy to read about cross burnings in other communities and think “that would never happen here.” I could no longer rest in that thought. It did happen here. I realized that the editorial writer had a point. Unless I became actively involved in challenging and dismantling racism I was allowing it to flourish.

Perhaps you, too, are troubled by racism’s ugly stain and want to do something about it. Let me share with you a wonderful opportunity to get involved in making a difference in your community. The Ottawa Area Summit on Racism will be held on Tuesday at Hope College.

Patterned after the successful Kent County Summit on Racism, the Ottawa Area Summit will bring together about 600 persons to listen, share, and work together to develop strategies to dismantle racism here. Inspiring keynote address will frame “break-out” sessions in which summit attendees will work together to identify strategies to dismantle racism in sex sectors of our community: government, education, business, faith communities, health care and the media.

Then the real work begins. Interested persons in each of the six sectors will meet throughout the year to further develop and implement the identified strategies to dismantle racism. These groups will report the results of their efforts in February 2002 at the second Ottawa Area Summit on Racism. This process will be repeated over a five-year period.

The summit is an important beginning for active dialogue and engagement on identifying and breaking down the barriers created by racism. I am convinced that the editorial writer was right about one thing – but not actively opposing racism whereever and whenever we encounter it, we are letting it flourish. The overwhelming response awe have received for the summit sends a strong message that racism in Ottawa County will no longer flourish through the benign neglect of otherwise well-intentioned people.

David Rhem is a partner with the law firm of Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt & Howlett.