2005-02-13 Holland Sentinel "Hard questions"

Hard questions
Summit on Racism has focused attention on uncomfortable truths

The Holland Sentinel

The Ottawa Area Summit on Racism, which holds its final annual meeting at Hope College Tuesday, has spawned a number of positive initiatives since it was established in 2001. The summits, sponsored by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, have spurred the development of diversity "tool kits" for local businesses, brought the Institutes for Healing Racism to Holland and, perhaps most notably, helped establish a regional fair housing center. However, more important than the direct achievements are the light the annual meetings has shed on a real, though not always obvious, problem in our community.

As it is in most places in America today, racism is seldom an "in your face" phenomenon in Holland. Outright, conscious bigotry may be rare, but stereotypes, ignorance and unconscious bias are common. Racism is subtle, at times imperceptible, but very real, experienced by members of our minority communities when they are prejudged, categorized or denied opportunities because of their ethnicity.

Event like the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism have been criticized as exercises in political correctness that merely assuage the guilt of white liberals. There is always a danger in such events of letting "PC-ness" obscure reality, and we've been disappointed with the relatively low minority participation at past summits. However, such criticisms are overblown and miss the value of the Summit in posing tough, sometimes uncomfortable questions about our community, such as why local companies have difficulties in recruiting and retaining minorities and why the dropout rate is so much higher for minorities than whites.

Expecting quick solutions to such deep-seated problems is unrealistic. The Ottawa Area Summit on Racism has ensured these questions have not been ignored. We hope the momentum that has been built in talking about racism -- and seeking real remedies -- will continue in the future.