Race Dialogue & Common Work

If civil rights failed to break down race barriers, what can? Francis Moore Lappé and Paul Du Bois report on community initiatives to cross the racial divide

Thirty years ago, even the most sour cynic wouldn't have guessed that the civil rights movement could succeed in removing legal sanctions for segregation. Despite real progress, however, the country remains almost as racially divided as ever. One-third of African-American school children attend schools that are 90 to 100 percent black. Most major cities are 40 to 70 percent minority, while their suburbs are overwhelmingly white. The recent rash of church burnings along with regular revelations of racism in top corporate ranks make it hard for any of us to deny that past strategies have failed to end racial division and animosity.

Yet, over the last decade, millions of Americans have been learning to bridge that divide, not under the banner of a new civil rights movement, but with notably different approaches. We see the new bridge-building taking two forms. One is grounded in the evolving world of citizen organizing – in fast-growing, community-based efforts that take on issues ranging from housing to jobs, from education to the environment. They've come a long way since the '60s!

Building multiracial leadership

The most successful activists long ago left behind the manifesto approach to social change in which enlightened leaders proclaim their agenda and rally the rest of us behind it. Instead, their sophisticated strategies build leadership from the bottom from regular citizens who learn to articulate their interests and values, translating them into public action.

The Industrial Areas Foundation network, based in Chicago, with 62 member organizations spread around the country, is a trailblazer in this work. Their leaders understand that no issue that concerns their members can be addressed by one racial or ethnic group alone, so they insist on methodically building their membership across class, race, and culture lines.

One of our favorite examples is Shelby County Interfaith in Memphis, Ten-nessee, which is comprised of roughly 50 churches and synagogues – half white and half black. All of its members recognized that Memphis schools had terrible problems, but African-American members wanted more tax dollars to repair dilapidated inner-city school buildings, while whites preferred less costly reforms, such as school-based management, which was a secondary concern for black members.

To bridge the gap, Shelby County Interfaith sent members into the schools to ask the opinions of students, teachers, and principals. Ed Charbonnet, co-chairman of the campaign, said he urged members of his white, affluent congregation, Holy Spirit Catholic Church, to go and see the conditions of the inner- city schools. Venturing out of their more comfortable neighborhoods, 40 parishioners took him up on the challenge. They came back and told Charbonnet, that they hadn't known that the buildings were in such bad shape.

It was only after this discovery that blacks and whites in the church-based coalition could work together to get more funding for school buildings. Leaders complain the money has been slow in coming, but the city and county have pledged to spend roughly $200 million for school reconstruction over the next five years.

Meanwhile, the organization has also racked up a clear-cut victory in its drive to win greater local control of schools and increase opportunities for home ownership among low-income people. This kind of collaboration between blacks and whites is not only possible, but the only thing that works, according to those involved in the growing movement.

Other networks that are crossing race lines in a citizen-organizing strategy include the Pacific Institute for Community Organization based in Oakland, California and HART (Hartford Areas Rallying Together) in Connecticut. All share a similar approach: draw people together to tackle mutual problems, and the racial stereotypes and misgivings begin to fade.

And make no mistake. Just because you may not have heard of these folks, doesn't mean they are not marginal. The Industrial Areas Foundation network alone involves some 2.5 million families.

Dialogue between races

While many believe this “common work” is the most effective way to bride the divide between races, there is another approach quietly underway. It is also bringing people together across race lines just to get acquainted, to share perceptions and experiences. Some call it “dialogue.” Over the last four months, our research has turned up 84 effective interracial “dialogue” groups from Virginia to Oregon. Many of them are largely invisible even in their own towns; others have grown to the point that they're able to reach out to other communities, helping them get additional dialogues started.

Sometimes we hear those engaged in interracial organizing dismiss these dialogue groups. They argue that it is common work, not dialogue, that breaks down barriers and builds bonds. Dialogue is nice, but it is never going to change the world, they've told us. Those involved in race dialogue groups disagree. Sharing feelings and perceptions can be the first step to action, they insist.

Reverend Lamont Monford, pastor of the Philippine Baptist Church in Lima, Ohio, participated in dialogue groups initiated with the help of the Study Circles Resource Center. “My mother was murdered 14 years ago,” Monford told us. “The only thing we know is that she was murdered by a white man. At the time I was angry because it seemed like the police weren't doing enough. The study circles allowed me to open up and share my feelings. They connected me with white people who care.” Now his black Baptist church has developed a “covenant” with a white Catholic church to work together on several community projects.

Friendships are growing and other black-white networks are forming “action groups,” said Lima's mayor, David Berger. One group comprised of a synagogue, a Catholic church, a black Baptist church, and a Methodist church decided to support a community center by helping with tutoring and recreation for young people.

An interracial democracy?

With black babies still dying at twice the rate of white babies and more young black men in jail than in college, it's easy to feel hopeless about the possibility of building a truly interracial democracy in America.

Don't make that mistake. Millions of Americans are learning to overcome fear and prejudice. Every day they are engaging together across race and class lines in dialogue and common work that improves their communities. What a better use of our time than lamenting failures of the past!

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