At the dawn of the new millennium, people of color in America are still faced with the persistence of racial prejudice. Many whites say they don't understand why Blacks and other minorities are dismayed by the dismantling of affirmative action and other programs designed to level the playing field. But demographers predict that changes over the next thirty years will place whites in the minority and create massive shifts in the current minority populations. Are Americans ready to deal with the new diversity? 90.3's Karen Schaefer talked with three different generations in Northeast Ohio for this report on the future of race relations.
Karen Schaefer- When Dr. Martin Luther King led his freedom marchers through the streets of Selma, Alabama in 1965, some believed it was the dawn of a new era in race relations. But today, many of the same forms of racial discrimination and prejudice still exist in our nation's cities, towns and countryside.
In his state of the city address, mayor Mike White made it clear that Cleveland is no exception to the continued presence of racism. Despite a recently expired federal court order for school desegregation and on-going efforts to improve inner city housing, Cleveland remains one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. For African-Americans, that discrimination dates back to the days of slavery and the forgotten promises that followed Emancipation.
Dr. Howard Mims- "If African-Americans had been allowed to be citizens after the Civil War, then they would be on a par with other people. But they are behind educationally, they are behind economically."
KS- Dr. Howard Mims is director of the Black Studies Department at Cleveland State University. He believes that racial tolerance begins with an understanding of the injustices of the past.
HM- "If people knew what had happened in history, there wouldn't be a lot of people opposed to affirmative action...And there are many people who don't know and don't want to know...my students, several of my students, say I'm a racist, because we're discussing things they have never discussed before."
KS- Just over two years ago, President Clinton initiated a national discussion of race relations. He chose the city of Akron as the site for the first of his four town hall meetings on race.
Fannie Brown- "Most people do not understand the dynamics of diversity. Diversity is all-inclusive...Everyone should have a part in making the change."
KS- Fannie Brown is the executive director of the Coming Together Project, the six-year old group whose work on bridging racial and cultural divides brought Akron into the national spotlight. She says the discussion that began in 1997 is still continuing.
FB- "It starts with dialogue and attitude-changing...teaching people to be accepting of others, to avoid stereotypes, to learn some strategies towards dealing with racism and prejudice and discrimination. And take on additional knowledge related to all issues of diversity, look at all the groups...Unfortunately, that takes a very, very long time."
KS- But the work of the Coming Together Project is beginning to pay off. Leaders from racially torn Decatur, Illinois are now turning to Brown for ideas. They hope to mend the rifts caused by the expulsion of seven black high school students last year, a case which became a national cause celebre. Other groups from around the U.S. and Canada are attending a year-long series of workshops on race relations. But Brown says her greatest concern is for America's next generation.
FB- "I think we need all need to get serious about it and you know why? ...we will have to prepare our young people to live in an international society...So we need to teach them how to...preserve the earth and then work together to maintain it. And so, how can you work together if you're at each other's throats?"
Oshon Temple- "Some people have described America as a melting pot...but...so much of how we define race...is infused by the fact that the color line is becoming very blurred."
KS- But on top of the nation's continued racial divisions, America's demographics are changing. Experts predict that by the year 2030 or 2050, Hispanics will outnumber blacks as the country's largest ethnic minority. And whites - for the first time in U.S. history - will be outnumbered by people of color. Oshon Temple, a native of Queens, New York, is now a student at Oberlin College. He studies math and music under a Bonner Scholarship, a program for low-income, minority, and first generation college students.
OT- "I'm a bi-racial person. I don't know my father...My grandfather on my father's side is from Santo Domingo and my mother is African-American. And so I have to embrace both parts of who I am and that's been a constant struggle..."
KS- Despite his own explorations of multi-cultural diversity, Temple is not sanguine about the future.
OT- "You have to begin to sympathize with more than the Latino students or the black students and take on a much more global perspective...we have a lot of bi-racial people, we have a lot of mixing going on...But the discussion has definitely got to be broader than it is."
KS- Tonight in Oberlin the discussion on race relations will continue with a lecture by leading African-American scholar and Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates. And like Howard Mims, Fannie Brown and Oshon Temple, Gates' message of racial tolerance, understanding and acceptance is meant for everyone. For INFOHIO, I'm Karen Schaefer in Cleveland.