Talking about race Panel reports: Importance of national conversation may have been its acknowledgment of the obvious.

September 28, 1998

HAVING TALKED about race for more than a year, as President Clinton urged, the nation finds itself questioning whether it is better off for having undergone the effort.

People can't say the president's advisory council on race didn't meet expectations. No one really knew what to expect because its mission was never clearly defined.

The race commission's final report leaves many thirsty for more. But there is value in knowing the steps that brought us this far need not be repeated.

The national conversation revealed the shortcomings of staged discussions featuring public figures who often acted like they had too much to lose by being frank. Few hearts were changed under the penetrating stare of TV cameras. People need to talk to each other for race relations to advance. But true progress is more likely in the small gatherings sponsored by religious and community groups that had in many instances been occurring before the hoopla of a presidential directive.

The series of discussions in Baltimore sponsored by the Interfaith Action for Racial Justice is one example of efforts that must continue. America needs more locally-inspired discussions and informal conversations among neighbors, where people feel free to say what they feel.

If their minds are changed it will be because they want to change, not because they are saying what they think an audience expects.

By concluding that lingering stereotypes are the biggest obstacle to improved race relations, President Clinton's advisory panel simply stated what was already known. People fear what they don't know, and Americans don't know enough about each other.

The race panel's assessment is valuable, though, as a new impetus to move beyond simple recognition of the problem. New strategies to fight racism must be developed.

Opportunities for people to talk to each other and find out how much more they are alike than they are different must be increased.

Pub Date: 9/28/98

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