In his opening remarks at today's race relations summit at the Convention Center, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke stressed that this was not a crisis summit, that race relations in Baltimore are generally good.
Two hours later, after the first session of small "dialogue groups" at least the 40 people in one group might disagree with him. One of the first statements in the group was: "People are raging inside at each other's differences."
Another person said early in the discussion: "I feel there's more prejudice today than at any point in history."
An estimated 1,500 people attended today's summit, which was prompted by violent, but isolated, racial incidents in Baltimore this summer. Organized by the city's Community Relations Commission, the summit is the first mass meeting on race relations ever in Baltimore and the first of its kind in the country, according to John B. Ferron, director of the Community Relations Commission.
The unique aspects of the summit were the small groups and workshops where participants discuss race relations. There were no panelists, no lecturers, no so-called experts talking to people. It was a day of people talking to each other in search of better understanding.
The 40 people in one group started understanding each other right away. Led by JoAnn Robinson, a history professor at Morgan State University and Francis Green, a community activist, the group included people of different ethnic groups, professions, backgrounds and mind-sets.
They discussed slavery, until one man said: "How can we continue to talk about slavery? Do we have to keep bringing it up?"
He was greeted by a resounding "Yes!"
Then they discussed history, knowing oneself and self-esteem. They talked about stereotypes, "systematic causes of racism" and "corporate racism."
Sometimes voices were raised, but tempers were kept in check.
As the session wore on, Robinson and Green steered the group toward identifying solutions. The group came up with many:
Concentrate on similarities, not differences; accept diversity; examine what's inside yourself, teach values at home; listen; care ("Make caring more fashionable"); be optimistic; and continue talking.
Several people suggested that the group should meet regularly, get to know one another and continue promoting better human relations.