2002-02-12 Lakeshore Press Summit speaker praises approach of examining, eliminating racism

Summit speaker praises approach of examining, eliminating racism
Lakeshore Press

The 2000 census confirms it: The face of America is not only changing, it’s moving. Growing minority populations are no longer concentrated in large metropolitan areas. People of color are choosing to settle in less urban, uniformly white areas, like West Michigan. “This brings us to a fascinating juncture in history,” said Ray Suarez, the Washington based senior correspondent for PBS’s “News-Hour.” “It’s probably the biggest thing in immigration since Ellis Island.”

Suarez is scheduled to be one of several guest speakers today at the second annual Ottawa Area Summit on Racism at Hope College. About 550 people registered for the event, which is an incremental step in a five-year process to systematically promote inclusion in key areas of the Lakeshore community.

The inaugural summit attracted 650 participants a year ago, eclipsing expectations. Summit organizations reserved enough rooms on campus this year to accommodate 800 participants, but registration was less robust. Gail Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, said reviews of last year’s summit were glowing, so she assumes external factors suppressed attendance.

The economic slowdown made some employers unwilling to give up a day’s productivity by permitting an employee to attend the daylong summit, Harrison said. She suspects people trying to understand what forms racism takes along the Lakeshore may shy away because there is an expectation that participants will agree to work on “action teams” that promote racial unity.

Harrison also expects local awareness of the summit may have waned. Two well-attended town meetings on racism preceded last year’s summit, and made all the print and broadcast media. Suarez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, praised the summit organizers’ approach of examining and eliminating racism in business, community, education, churches, government, health care and media.

“I’ve seen a lot of communities looking at racism, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a process like this where they’re teasing it out by stands,” said Suarez, who accepts only two speaking engagements per month. “We tend to focus on the score at the end of the game. We need to look for the 10,000 little steps it will take to get to the outcome we want.”

In the rippling aftermath of Sept. 11, Suarez said many Americans are questioning how open a society we want to have. How many immigrants and foreign travelers should we welcome? With the downturn in the economy, should we reel in charitable giving to international causes? Should the nation turn inward instead of remaining aware, concerned and engaged in the rest of the world? Suarez quickly admits that he doesn’t possess the answers.

As a journalist, he takes his delight in making sure important issues make it to the table for public discussion, and reporting how the public chews on them. Suarez said he is encouraged that Americans seeking to understand why the terrorist happened are stepping back to gain a wide-angle look of the Middle East and Islam.

“Multiculturalism is not some knew thing we have to get used to,” Suarez said. “This continent was populated by multiple American Indian nations with distinct cultures and customs. America was multicultural before the Europeans and before the African-Americans.”