2003-02-12 Grand Rapids Press Summit views contemporary racists

Summit views contemporary racists
Grand Rapids Press

The white bank loan officer thinks he’s leading a perfectly “colorblind” life.

He holds nothing against people of color. He proudly owns every Whitney Houston CD, every Eddy Murphy DVD and watches reruns of the “The Cosby Show” every chance he gets.

But something doesn’t add up.

He refuses an education loan to a laid-off, unmarried mother of Asian descent who offers heirloom jewelry as collateral. That same day, he approves a school loan to a white, unemployed divorced father whose only collateral is one rare baseball card.

The loan officer is a “contemporary racist,” according to Dr. John Dovidio, a research psychologist at Colgate University, who was the keynote speaker Tuesday at the Ottawa Area Summit on racism hosted by Hope College.

“This is not the overt racism of the past,” Dovidio told the 500 people gathered. “It’s the unconscious assumptions and reactions rooted in historical biases of people who truly think they are not racist.”

Psychological research shows people tend to automatically prefer people who are of their same race, same class, same school, same community, Dovidio said. Unchecked, this can contribute to unconscious, unintentional biases.

Each instance might seem minor, but when repeated over and over, it makes a big difference in how people treat neighbors, classmates and colleagues, he said.

Few people today would label African-Americans as inferior to white Americans. Nevertheless, research shows whites regularly get more positive responses than blacks.

“Today, it’s not that blacks are worse than whites,” Dovidio said, “but that whites are better than blacks.”

The best solution to a problem most people don’t know they have is to experience enough interracial interactions that the ingrained thinking and responses are retrained, Dovidio said.

The Ottawa Area Summit on racism is in its third year of a five-year dialogue intended to promote racial unity in the greater Holland area.

Organizers day inroads are being made, from the beginnings of a fair housing program and hospital signs in Spanish to diversity training and minority recruitment and retention programs.

Several subtle aspects of contemporary racism were brought into the spotlight in a skit about a bank load officer performed by KMR Diversity Theatre. Alice Kennedy started the group three years ago at Cascade Engineering Inc., and now plays at West Michigan businesses regularly.

“I’m very pleased with the attendance because I feared this would be the year no one would come,” said Gail Harrison, coordinator of the summit. “The weather is bad. The economy is bad. A lot of people just can’t get a day away from work right now.”

The Summit’s attendance held steady from a year ago, despite a drop in the number of classroom teachers able to attend. With drastic, same-year cuts in state funding for public schools, many districts eliminated professional-development conferences to conserve their substitute teacher budgets.

There were only 45 educators in the education breakout session, and only a couple were not administrators, said Diane Talo, assistant principal at Holland’s East Middle School.

However, the group was productive, proposing that districts with a desire to hire minority teachers work as a consortium to recruit and keep them.

Attorney David Rehm said he is excited about a new action team engaging people from Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg. Attendance at a film discussion series in the Tri-Cities nearly doubled from the first showing to the second, he said.

“As we’re getting the message out,” Rhem said, “we’re drawing more people in.”

Attending the summit Tuesday was a delegation from Dayton, Ohio, which is planning to launch a summit of its own based on the model developed in Grand Rapids and adapted for Ottawa County.

Three-quarters of a million people live in metropolitan Dayton. The city is 40 percent African-American, with a small but fast-growing Hispanic population, Linda and Theo Majka said.

Organizers began laying plans for a Dayton Summit two years ago, after someone attended the United Nations Conferences on Racism in South Africa, and after hearing Holland educator David Douglas speak at a national conference of the B’hai Faith.

“We are very impressed by what we’re seeing here,” Jim Hagan said. “you have brought together institutional support and sponsorship. You’re working with existing resources. You feel the energy. It’s empowering individuals.”

The Ottawa Area Summit on Racism is sponsored by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, with help from Latin Americans United for Progress, the Alliance for Cultural and Ethnic Harmony and Core City.