2003-02-12 Holland Sentinel "Speaker: Subtle racist attitudes persist"

Speaker: Subtle racist attitudes persist
Ottawa Area Summit on Racism draws hundreds to address issue
The Holland Sentinel

John Dovidio acknowledges that overt racism among white Americans has declined sharply in the last 50 years. Yet subtle, often unconscious, racist attitudes persist, he said, and are a real factor that every day keeps minorities from full equality in America.

"This new form of racism is like a virus that has mutated," the Colgate University psychologist said in his keynote address Tuesday at the third Ottawa Area Summit on Racism at Hope College. "It's hard to detect."

About 500 people turned out for the summit, part of a five-year effort to raise awareness and address the issues of racism in Ottawa County. Participants attended presentations and workshops and worked to develop action plans to attack the problem.

The turnout Tuesday was smaller than at last year's summit, which drew 650 people, but Gail Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, the sponsor of the event, said she was pleased with the attendance.

"I was so concerned about it because of the economy, the war on Iraq and even the weather," Harrison said. "What that shows to me is that on the face of all this is an issue that people still care about."

Ortencia Ruiz was part of the community action team, and said she was "very pleased with everything."

"I think the highlight was the action team work and all the task we agreed on taking for the next year," she said. Her group set to obtain demographic data on minorities in the Grand Haven area and organize an event they can engage in, she said.

Dovidio called events like the summit "essential but not sufficient."

"It's impressive that so many people come to an event like this," he said after his address. "Eighty percent of the people attending are white. They don't have to. They come because they care. But you can't solve a problem of 300 years in 24 hours."

In his speech, Dovidio recognized that a large majority of white Americans today do not adhere to old-fashioned racism because, at a cognitive level, they are committed to fairness and equality. At a deeper level, though, people naturally identify by groups and bind together with those of the same group.

Dovidio, who has centered his studies in black-white racial relationships, said in his research he has found that most whites will not describe a black person as worse than a white person. However, in laboratory experiments, he said, whites typically rate other whites higher than comparably qualified blacks.

"It's not that blacks are bad, it's just that whites are better" was a typical result of his studies, he said.

He said those psychological tendencies have proven in studies to have a negative effect in people's employment and educational opportunities.

Dovidio said unconscious biases are most often reflected in spontaneous decisions and in non-verbal behavior. Whites, he said, may not be conscious of their biases, while blacks more readily perceive them.

"We as whites are sending mixed messages to blacks," he said. "We are saying the right things, but we are not doing the right things."

After the speech, participants divided up in action teams in several areas including community, government, education, art, health care and media relations.

The government team set as goals to assist government agencies in reviewing policies, programs and practices to promote diversity and educate on the importance of diversity. The art workshop dialogue gravitated around how to increase the exposure of art of a wide cultural range in local galleries and other venues while the business team built strategies to recruit and retain minorities.

"I think this is a great event to raise awareness and to generate new ideas on how to deal with racism," said Chris Byrnes, president of the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce.

Among other issues, business representatives talked of their difficulties retaining minorities long enough for them to have opportunities to move to higher positions. They also presented a revised resource kit that deals with recruitment, retention and advancement of minorities and how to achieve a diverse workplace.

The summit included a theatrical performance by KMR Diversity Theater of "The Usual Things," portraying a loan officer's realization of his prejudices and stereotypical thinking by reliving a typical day in his life through a conversation with a psychiatrist.

"Justice matters and matters a great deal," said Alfredo Gonzales, associated provost of Hope College, in his closing speech. "It is up to us to make a difference ... we are here because we want to make a difference."