2008-05-18 Holland Sentinel "Our View - Racism summit"

OUR VIEW - Racism summit
Speak frankly about issues of race
The Holland Sentinel

Holland, MI —

Race is one of the most emotionally charged topics in American society. Start talking about racism and barriers go up, suspicions harden and civil discourse often goes out the window. In modern America, “racist” is the atomic bomb of epithets, almost the ultimate insult.

Not surprisingly, given the sensitivity of the subject, we tend to avoid discussing race, except in the most general terms or among our closest friends. But discuss it we must, which is why we welcome the return of the Lakeshore Summit on Racism Tuesday at Hope College. The first summit, held in 2000, was a groundbreaking event that sparked real community discussion on issues of race, and we hope Tuesday’s meeting stimulates similar frank conversation.

The progress made against racism in America is undeniable — institutionalized discrimination is either illegal or beyond the pale of social acceptability. It’s also undeniable that racism persists, in America and in Holland, though not necessarily in the same forms it did a generation or two ago. Overt acts of racism are rare here, but members of ethnic minorities in Holland still know what it feels like to be eyed by store clerks as potential shoplifters, to find that rental openings are suddenly gone when they call, or to feel like an outsider or interloper in many parts of town. Only one non-white person sits on any city council or township board in the Holland-Zeeland area (none on any school board) and minority populations remain largely segregated in certain neighborhoods in Holland city and township. Great strides have been made by minorities in the workforce and in education, but the effects of past discrimination still put many families at a disadvantage in climbing the economic ladder.

Truly racist comments are rare in public, but old attitudes lurk just below the surface. We were reminded of that when we read the comments posted on The Sentinel’s Web site after a May 9 commentary on preparing children for a diverse society and an article Tuesday on declining enrollment in Holland Public Schools. Given the anonymity of a Web forum, several people felt free to post comments characterizing Hispanics in Holland as illegal immigrants and gang members, and blaming their presence here for a variety of social ills. It was encouraging to see so many people attack the racist statements, but it was more disturbing to see them made publicly in the first place. Unfortunately, the people who really need to be educated about racism won’t be found at the Summit on Racism. (One of the problems of past summits, from our viewpoint, is that they were too often exercises in preaching to the choir — people who were already committed to ending discrimination — with a surprisingly small minority representation to offer a non-white perspective.)

Discussions on race have to take into account the opinions of many whites who view efforts like Tuesday’s summit with suspicion. They see “diversity” as a PC buzzword and talk of racism as an excuse for minorities to take on the role of victim and shirk responsibility. In his perceptive address on race in March (www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/03/18/obama.transcript/), Sen. Barack Obama not only identified why past experiences may lead many African-Americans, like his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, into anger and bitterness, but also recognized the resentment of many working-class whites who don’t feel privileged by their race and don’t believe they should be held responsible for past injustices. That underscores the importance of emphasizing the need to find solutions in discussions of race, instead of falling into the trap of blame-casting. We should recognize that racism is not solely a white phenomenon, but whites need to understand that discrimination by the majority race has far greater impact.

As in the past, this year’s summit on racism includes a variety of keynote speakers and targeted discussion sessions. The challenge, organizers of the summit understand, is to move Holland beyond mere tolerance to true inclusion. Inclusion means more than avoiding acts of discrimination; it means making sure that doors are open and people of all ethnicities feel respected. To create an inclusive community, we need to identify imbalances and inequalities, explore whey exist and remove barriers. Inclusion also means listening. It is natural for humans to congregate with others who are like them, but we don’t progress much if we’re only talking to people who already agree with us — to grow, we need to be challenged to reassess our thinking. Our society and economy will be stronger if it is built on the ideas and hard work of all citizens.

We congratulate the organizers of the summit, led by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, for reviving this important public exercise after a two-year hiatus. Great progress has been made, but great barriers remain, and we need candid conversation to overcome them. Let’s not shy away from that.