MAXWELL:  Race summit is for regular folks

3/17/2002 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



Here is a statistic that will surprise few informed people: Of the nation’s 50 governors, not one is an African-American or Hispanic. Now, here is a statistic that may surprise even many informed people: Of our 100 U.S. senators, not one is black. If these two institutions were private clubs, their exclusionary rosters would be the talk of network news and the late-night lineup.

The fact is, few people _ except for African-Americans who experience the personal, daily stings of racial discrimination _ care about such matters. Lily-whiteness and near-lily-whiteness are normal conditions in many parts of our culture, especially in the higher echelons of the corporate workplace.

I was fortunate to be among a group of about 100 people last Thursday who care about the above statistics and racism’s enduring grip on people’s lives. The event was a summit called “Beyond the Color of Fear: Strategies for Overcoming Racism.” The anchor of the event was Lee Mun Wah’s documentary The Color of Fear.

Coordinated by the National Conference for Community and Justice and funded by the St. Petersburg Times and Time Warner Communications, the summit was valuable mainly because it pulled together Tampa Bay area decisionmakers, such as the chief judge for the Pinellas-Pasco circuit and high school and college student leaders.

Concurrent workshops dealt with issues in business, education, housing, justice and media.

Race is such an explosive and hurtful subject that most people are afraid to discuss around strangers. The summit, conducted by trained facilitators, gave participants a safe space to be open and brutally honest. For example, a branch manager of a major bank, a black man, told of how he faced harsh criticism from white employees after he hired a black woman as his assistant. He pointed out that whites at his bank do not see anything wrong when a white manager hires a white assistant. No one in the workshop became defensive or tried to rationalize such disparate reactions.

The conference was special to me because I had lunch with four students _ two white girls and two black girls _ in advanced placement classes at a Tampa high school. Eagerly, passionately and honestly, they discussed race problems in their classes. Both white girls agreed that the handful of blacks in these classes experience unnecessary problems related to race and ethnicity.

I mention the students because if I had had this same conversation with adults, I more than likely would have heard denials and clever ruses to blame the victim. The students came to the conference for the expressed purpose of discovering the truth and finding solutions.

Again, this was no ordinary race summit, where attendees talked and resumed their lives. Each attendee had to write a “personal action plan,” a confidential letter in which they identified a race-related problem and committed themselves to trying to solve the problem. Conference organizers will mail the letters to the attendees in six weeks so they can measure their own progress.

The group will reconvene in October, when participants will report on their personal action plans.

A few attendees complained that the conference was a waste of time because it was just another example of preaching to the choir. The argument is that those who need to attend race summits _ blatant bigots, white supremacists, Neo-Nazis _ do not attend.

I disagree. The problems blacks face in the typical workplace or lending institution, for example, are not perpetrated by extremists. These problems come from respectable white men and women in power suits, pleasant people who live in gated communities _ the very people, some of them, who attended Thursday’s conference.

These are the people who should attend, otherwise decent folk who live ordinary lives. Such conferences need to preach to more choirs like this one. Average white people, who are unaware of their white privilege, who hold powerful positions, can do more harm to minorities than 20 bigots waving rebel flags.

The organizers of the summit were aware of this fact, which is why they invited the vice president for JP Morgan, white high school principals and white law enforcement supervisors. They are the emissaries for real change, decisionmakers with the power to make and break lives.

The comments of Chief Judge David Demers, a member of the “choir,” in the St. Petersburg Times, encapsulates the necessity of getting people like him involved in discussions on race: “I hope I’ll learn some things that will help me be more effective. I may find out some things about the judiciary that I didn’t know. And they may be things I should know as chief judge.”