2005-06-03 Grand Haven Tribune "Residents at forum vow to fight racism"

Residents at forum vow to fight racism
Grand Haven Tribune

Two weeks ago posters popped up throughout the Tri-Cities promoting a gathering exclusively for people of predominantly white ancestry. In response to this weekend’s scheduled “White Voices of America,” gathering, about 100 people attended a Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance forum Thursday night at Lakeshore Middle School to discuss area racism and ways to conquer division.

Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance Executive Director Gail Harrison told Thursday’s crowd: “We’re always concerned about bringing more notoriety (to groups such as WVA) but we didn’t want our community to be painted with the brush of racism. We invite the community to define inclusion. We don’t deny the rights of free speech (or for WVA to gather) but we don’t have to agree with what is being said.”

Many residents spoke Thursday night, expressing deep-rooted concern that racism and discrimination are prominent in the Tri-Cities area, although rarely discussed. One resident dubbed the scenario “dysfunctional politeness” and encouraged banding together “to continue what we started here tonight.” Resident Steve Platt said he is “shocked” not only by racial bias but by local intolerance for gays, lesbians and people of non-mainstream faiths.

“We have a community that has to deal with insidious intolerance,” Platt said. “You gain so much when you are around people who are different. I have grown every time I’ve been around people that are different than me. This community, as delightful as it is, doesn’t encourage that. People are preventing themselves from growing.”

Panel members and forum attendees agreed that promoting diversity and inclusiveness is instrumental in building a solid, cohesive and constructive community.

Panelist Jay Peters, executive director of the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, said this issue isn’t limited to Grand Haven. Racism and discrimination are regional problems. It’s up to us to learn to “get along,” he said. According to statistics Peters cited, between 1990 and 2000 the West Michigan white population increased 10 percent, the African-American population grew by 23 percent and Hispanic residency increased by 136 percent.

“We’re a little stinted in our thinking,” Peters said. “This (WVA) is idiotic stuff we’re talking about. It is a sad symptom. We have to work harder. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

The Rev. Ron James of the Antioch Christian Center has lived in the Tri-Cities since 1987. James is African-American. Less than a decade ago, an individual or group burned a cross in James yard, which led to the formation of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. “We’ve made many strides since 1987 to make inclusion part of our community,” James said Thursday. “I’m excited this community is not letting this slide by. Let’s make this a community of inclusion.”

One audience member, a white woman who is in an interracial relationship, said she’s experienced discrimination form African-Americans and suggested racism is a result of “responding out of woundedness.” “They felt excluded and had to form their own groups,” Della Wilson said. “It is a step backward for us to exclude. When we separate out groups, we’re not making progress. The only way to overcome the wounds is to embrace one another.”

Four members of WVA, dressed in black pants and white shirts, attended the forum. WVA organizer Cory Traxler told the crowd the group is not about racism and “only time is going to prove what our organization is about.” Traxler, 22, said the upcoming gathering in Spring Lake’s Central Park has nothing to do with “white supremacy,” a concern voiced by LEDA leaders, the panel and audience members. “I understand where each and every one of you is coming from, but it (white supremacy gathering) is not going to happen in this situation,” Traxler said. “The Ku Klux Klan were very horrible people. We do not represent those ideals. We agree with this community on their beliefs about white supremacy. It’s not what we’re about.”

A young woman identifying herself as “Nicole” from White Voices of America told the crowd: “We don’t want to segregate our community. We are not out to harm or put fear in anyone. We have friends of all races. We are not a white supremacy group.”

Shortly after midnight, Traxler returned an earlier phone call from a Tribune reporter. He said the WVA family picnic is scheduled for 5 p.m. Saturday at Spring Lake’s Central Park. Our intention is positive,” Traxler said. “We’re trying to keep everything mellow. Many more people who will ever admit in their lifetime will agree with what we are talking about.”

According to Traxler, WVA is concerned about “reverse discrimination” and aims to promote equal across-the-board rights for all races with no special privileges granted to any group. He says WVA is not attempting to stir up racial controversy in the community, but rather to open eyes and give those afraid to speak a forum to voice their thoughts.

“For argument’s sake let’s say you believe everything we believe,” Traxler said. “A person in your stance could never admit to it. We

Re running off our own pocket money and donations, but no one donated without doing it anonymously. People agree with our ideas, but they know everyone else will attack them, so they don’t want to put their name in the mix.” Traxler said he hopes the animosity and separation will end. He believes anybody with other than mainstream/politically popular ideas or beliefs is reated like a minority in society.

I’m hoping enough people can speak their vice and make a difference about things,” Traxler said, adding that he “guarantees” no harm or danger will come from Saturday’s event, which will be staffed by local law enforcement agencies. WVA members left before the forum concluded. Traxler said the early exit was because they felt they were being treated “rudely,” “cut short” by moderators and “attacked” by forum participants who didn’t believe the motive of their cause.

“It’s kind of funny they call themselves an ethnic diversity organization when they’re against us, an ethnic diversity group,” Traxler said. “We’re trying to keep everything mellow-that’s why we left. Last I knew, the definition of “supremacy” was thinking you’re better than someone else. We don’t feel like we’re better or more qualified to judge people or groups than anyone else. It sounds like they do.”

After the quad departed the Lakeshore Middle School auditorium, forum attendee Lindsay Dean suggested WVA members meet with LEDA members to serve everyone’s purpose more than breaking off into little groups.” Traxler indicated early this morning he would be open to such a meeting.

Political and religious leaders weighted in on Thursday’s forum with personal thoughts and historical anecdotes. State Rep. Barb VanderVeen suggested “we stop pointing fingers, saying and writing angry words.” VanderVeen said nothing will change until we learn to “love and accept each other for who we are. We’re going to get there when we take the energy to get to know each other. We need to build bridges. We need to be open and honest. We need to be bridge-builders, and I commit to being one of them.”

Following Thursday’s forum LEDA’s Harrison said she was “disappointed” in the turnout and had expected to fill the auditorium’s approximately 800 seats. “I believe the hall would have been filled up, but it’s a bad time of year,” Harrison said. “This is not new, fighting racism. It started nine years ago when there was a cross=burning on Ron James’ lawn. Join us. Help us to define this community not as an all-white community, but as a community that embraces those who come here.”

LEDA is circulating a “Tri-Cities Values Inclusion: A Statement of Vision” petition that promotes justice, equal opportunity and mutual respect for all ethnic background.” Call 846-9074 for more information. Perhaps the issue is less complicated than adults make it, according to 11-year-old Roshanna Russell and 13-year-old Elijah Russell, who both spoke at Thursday’s forum. The siblings had similar sentiments.

“It’s good everyone came out,” Elijah said after the meeting. “The American vision is like a melting pot.” His little sister agreed. “Why does it matter what color you are? We’re all people.”