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December 16, 2000
Column #1007

HOW TO OVERCOME AMERICA'S RACIAL DIVIDE

     In the most bitterly fought, narrowly-won Presidential election, 92 percent of African Americans voted for the man who actually won the most votes, but not the election.

     Ironically, George W. Bush did more to reach out to blacks than previous Republican presidential candidates. Yet millions of blacks and Hispanics see the election of Bush as Exhibit A of racism in America.

     Exhibit B are 8,000 hate crimes per year in the U.S., nearly one per hour of every day.

     What can be done? Politicians can do little to change the hearts of people.

     That's the job of the church, synagogue or mosque which can help members learn about other races, cultures, and religions and examine stereotypes of others. For example, ask yourself this: would your life be different if your skin was another color?

     Coincidentally, on the day that Gore conceded the election and Bush told the nation, ''I know America wants reconciliation and unity,'' a remarkably diverse cross-section of religious leaders gathered at the Washington Cathedral to release an unprecedented declaration condemning racism as ''a problem of the heart and an evil that must be eradicated.''

     Led by Sanford Cloud, Jr, President of the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), the group issued a Joint Statement on Racism which says, ''Racism contradicts and offends the most fundamental beliefs and values of our faith traditions...

     ''The uniqueness, dignity and worth of every person derives from creation. Each individual is equally precious, illuminating life,'' said Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Native American leaders. ''People of faith must not allow racism to persist.'' 

     Therefore, the faith leaders pledged ''to examine our own biases and positions of privilege...to model the repentance that turns us away from racism and leads us to work toward reconciliation,'' and to ''promote understanding, inclusion and mutual respect and thus build communities across the divides of race, ethnicity and culture...''

     The statement is the centerpiece of a series of actions promised to President Clinton by NCCJ's Faith Leaders Initiative at a White House summit last April. ''We were specifically asked to explore how to design, model, implement and measure actions that would work toward eliminating bias and bigotry,'' said Cloud.

     Therefore, NCCJ (formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews) developed practical materials that could help any congregation. One outlines ''10 actions to make America a more inclusive and just society,'' such as ''Become an ally of people other than those of your race, ethnicity or religion'' by confronting racist comments or discrimination. 

     One church which did that is First Presbyterian Church of Fremont, OH. Its pioneering work is cited in a ''Directory of Faith Based Promising Practices for Racial Unity.''

     Pastor Doug Nagel was troubled by animosity between gangs of whites, blacks and Hispanic migrant workers in his rural area of northern Ohio. From the pulpit he asked if anyone was was willing to ''defuse this waiting time bomb.''

     Stanley Johnson was the only parishioner who raised his hand. Nagel gave him the names of minority leaders in Fremont, and suggested that they form a ''Study Circle'' using a format developed by the Studies Circle Resource Center of Pomfret, Conn. Each person told his or her story of how prejudice had affected them and their families. It took weeks.

     After hearing each other out, the group decided to create Citizens Upholding Racial Equality (CURE), an advocacy group for anyone suffering from discrimination. When CURE complained there were too few minority teachers, the school board hired more.

     Recently an African American father complained that his son was the victim of racial profiling, arrested three times while driving, though he had broken no laws. CURE met with the police chief and there have been no more similar incidents.

     Orie McDonald, a vice president of the NAACP, says CURE ''means a lot to me. We have let the community know that we are out there watching, a watchdog which is a very positive group. We have addressed discrimination, especially in the workforce. We have brought people together, sat down and addressed issues and arrived at solutions where both parties can agree.''

     Furthermore, he confessed, ''I have become a better person. CURE has made me aware that I was not being very sensitive. I had to stand back and listen.''

     Another impact of CURE is the emergence of Voces Unidas (United Voices) in the Hispanic community. It has registered hundreds of Latinos to vote, created a recognition banquet for high school graduates and raised scholarship funds.

     To get ideas for what your congregation can do, see http://www.nccj.org on the web. 

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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