MAXWELL:  Leaders need an eye-opener on race

2/27/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Correction (2/28/02): The telephone number for the National Conference for Community and Justice is (727) 568-9333. An incorrect number was published in Bill Maxwell’s column on Wednesday.

I am fortunate to live in the Tampa Bay area, where racism and prejudice do not exist, where the police and the community work together harmoniously. Here in my paradise, no one is discriminated against because of his or her color, national origin or religion.

For those who have not caught on, I entertain no such illusions about the sorry state of race and ethnic relations in our region.

We could easily get the impression, however, that the so-called leaders of our communities believe that race and ethnic relations are fine and dandy. At least that is what one might conclude from the number of policymakers who have declined to attend a conference on racism sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times and Time Warner Communications and coordinated by the National Conference for Community and Justice.

To get high attendance, conference planners cut the event from two days to one (March 14). But the response has been underwhelming. Although many corporate and government leaders plan to attend the workshops that will feature the award-winner producer Lee Mun Wah (The Color of Fear), too many others, such as our local mayors, have more important things to do.

I know for a fact that the fair cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater, just to name three, have serious racial problems that need immediate attention.

The time has come for the leaders of the Tampa Bay area to face up to the reality that they should set the tone for positive race and ethnic relations through their actions, through their participation in legitimate public forums to that end.

Ordinary residents, who lack the clout to change society’s direction, have been waiting too long for the business, political and faith leaders of our communities to take a public stand against hate and bigotry. Indeed, the Tampa Bay region is plagued by racist and anti-Semitic incidents.

Those of us who observe such matters see a resurgence in white supremacist activity, and we see no end to this new trend without courageous, principled leadership from our mayors, business leaders and other movers and shakers.

A recent poll conducted by Cherry Communications for Leadership Florida uncovered some disturbing findings about race and ethnic relations in Tampa Bay and elsewhere in the Sunshine State.

The poll was conducted by randomly calling 702 registered voters. Here are the key results: Sixty-seven percent believe white Floridians have a high to medium degree of prejudice toward African-Americans, while 73 percent believe blacks have a high to medium degree of prejudice toward whites.

Now get this: Only 14 percent think they have a high to medium degree of prejudice toward people of other races.

The fact that only 14 percent of Floridians think they are prejudiced indicates at least one frightening problem: We are in deep, deep personal denial about race and ethnic prejudice. In other words, “You harbor racist thoughts. I do not.”

Such denial explains what I believe accounts for some of the unrealistic perceptions the poll unearthed. For example, 50 percent of registered voters think all racial and ethnic groups have equal job opportunities. Thirty-two percent believe all groups are treated equally by police?

Another 40 percent believe all groups receive equal treatment in stores, even though studies show otherwise. Even with knowledge of lawsuits and scholarly surveys, 39 percent of registered voters think all groups are treated equally in the courts. We hear all the time that African-Americans regularly face all-white or overwhelmingly white juries in some of Florida’s most segregated counties, such as Citrus. Equal treatment in the courts?

Many our of most important institutions _ banks, media outlets, insurance, real estate, law enforcement _ lack diversity in 2002. During a recent interview with the Times, in reaction to the poll, Florida Power president Bill Habermeyer said diversity in the firm’s work force will help the company contribute to diverse communities that will strengthen the state’s economy.

Habermeyer is right, of course, and I only wish that other leaders would begin to seriously appreciate the broad, long-term efficacy of diversity. I am personally asking those who have been invited to attend the conference (“Beyond the Color of Fear: Strategies for Overcoming Racism”) to attend.

The worst thing that can happen is all of us will be enriched. For information, telephone the National Conference for Community and Justice: (727) 668-9333.