Citizens Cross Racial Divide To Tackle Concrete Problems

By William Bole
American News Service

Opinion polls have shown what most people already knew: blacks and whites often clash in America, whether it's over O.J. Simpson or affirmative action hiring policies.

Beyond the national spotlight, however, a new surge of community activism is revealing another part of this picture. In a growing number of city neighborhoods and rural districts around the country, people are getting along -- and getting things done -- across racial lines.

For example:

    --In Chattanooga, Tenn., black and white citizens sat down together for after-church brunches in restaurants and helped spark the city's cultural and economic revival.

    --Not far away, in Memphis, black churches and white churches together hammered out a school reform agenda and got the city behind it -- after having built the first community-based organization in the city where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated three decades ago.

    --In Hartford, Conn., gritty issues of urban life such as rat control and trash collection have produced an active alliance of residents from minority and white ethnic enclaves.

    --In Sonoma County, Calif., Hispanic farmworkers and middle-class whites learned how to work together by fighting for each other's causes -- from education to affordable housing -- not just their own.

These and other initiatives have thrown light on what some regard as a new breed of civic organization, one that crosses the color line in forging grassroots coalitions of common concern.

Many of the recruits in this movement -- which has spread to all parts of the country -- do not fit the popular activist stereotypes. "We don't attract the Birkenstock liberals," said Mariba Karamoko, organizer of Shelby County Interfaith, an alliance of 48 Memphis congregations, half of them black, half of them white.

"These are people who haven't eaten a bit of tofu," he said. "They're middle of the roaders -- people who go to church every Sunday." One of them is Ed Charbonnet, a computer analyst who got involved through his congregation, Holy Spirit Catholic Church, in white, affluent East Memphis. "I'm a card-carrying Republican. This is all new to me," he said.

Charbonnet was a leader in Shelby County Interfaith's successful drive for school-based management, or local control, and has pushed for new funds to repair rundown city schools.

He has also begun taking his daughter Clare, 12, along to meetings in black churches. "She really enjoys it. She gets very excited -- 'Daddy, when are we going again?'" Charbonnet said.

Citizens such as Charbonnet appear to be defying the odds at a time when polls show polarized black-white views of everything from the O.J. Simpson trials to public policy issues.

African Americans are three times more likely than the general population to see police brutality as a serious problem and are also far more likely to rate their local public schools as "only fair or poor" according to a survey taken last year by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonprofit research group in Washington.

"There has always been a wide gap between blacks and whites on critical issues," said Lee Daniels, spokesman for the National Urban League, based in New York. "The so-called racial divide is a fashionable phrase, but it's nothing new."

What's new, according to Daniels and other observers, is that ordinary black and white Americans are reaching for common ground in their communities, in apparently greater numbers than before. "Those efforts are not reinforced by the larger society," he said. "There's very little notice given to them, and so you don't hear about them."

Behind some of the efforts are national networks such as the Industrial Areas Foundation, which organizes primarily among churches. Based in Chicago, the foundation counts 62 member organizations, representing congregations with more than 2.5 million families around the country.

The vast majority of the organizations are biracial or multiracial, according to Gerald Taylor, anational leader of the foundation who was the original organizer of Shelby County Interfaith.

Another network of this kind is the Pacific Institute for Community Organization, based in Oakland, Calif. Launched in 1972 as a regional coalition, the network has grown sixfold over the past decade. It now represents 29 organizations, mostly church-based, in 60 cities as far east as Pensacola, Fla., and Brooklyn, N.Y., said the Rev. John Baumann, a Catholic priest who serves as the institute's executive director.

A key strategy of interracial organizations is to move beyond race by focusing on the shared interests of whites and blacks, along with those of other ethnic groups. "We organize around issues. That's the glue that holds people together," said Baumann.

It's not easy, though. In most places, bridging the racial gap means having to overcome deep suspicions and negative stereotypes, as well as vastly different perceptions of what ails the community, according to national leaders such as Baumann.

In Hartford, organizer Jim Boucher has seen Puerto Rican and Italian-American merchants slap each other on the back after winning a battle to keep city trash collection in their shopping districts. But he has also seen an accelerated process of white flight and urban decline.

"There's a lot of distress, and one (racial) group often blames the other group for things being so hard," said Boucher, whose organization is HART -- Hartford Areas Rally Together. "It's a big obstacle to racial harmony."

Still, many are hopeful.

A little over a decade ago, Bessie J. Smith wanted to help make Chattanooga "one of the greatest mid-size cities in the United States," as she put it. So did a few hundred others who met over Sunday brunches that launched the citizens' movement Chattanooga Venture.

"We had white folks and black folks putting their heads together," said Smith, an 81-year-old activist from the historic black Erlinger section. From these sessions emerged the ideas for a downtown aquarium and scenic river park -- among other civic improvement projects that have become linchpins of Chattanooga's widely touted revival.

Crossing the Racial Divide

In the beginning, there was white and black -- and a racial divide of sorts at Shelby County Interfaith in Memphis, Tenn. The issue was education reform.

African-American members of the coalition wanted more tax dollars for inner-city school buildings in disrepair. Whites preferred less costly reforms, such as school-based management (also supported by the 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 for themselves. Forty parishioners took him up on the offer.

"They came back and said, 'I didn't know the buildings were in that bad shape,'" said Charbonnet, a computer analyst who lives in East Memphis.

Black and white, the organization lined up behind city funds for dilapidated school buildings. Leaders say the money has been slow in coming, although city and county have pledged to spend roughly $200 million for school reconstruction over the next five years.

Meantime the organization has racked up a clear-cut victory in its drive to win greater local control of schools, a big item of its education reform push, and has looked to other concerns such as home ownership in Memphis.

In Sonoma County, Calif., the Faith-Based Community Organizing Project has found a way of dealing with the diverging interests of its white and Latino members. It has indulged in a bit of political horse-trading. In the town of Sebastopol, for example, a Latino Catholic parish that includes farmworkers endorsed community service as a graduation requirement for high school students -- a cause dear to members of the town's white Congregationalist parish.

In turn, the middle-class Congregationalists lobbied for affordable housing, a high priority for the lower-income Latino community. "It blew away the school board when you had all these Latinos and whites at a board meeting to talk about community service activities," said Larry Ferlazzo of the Chicago-based Industrial Areas Foundation who organized the project and is now spearheading a similar coalition in Sacramento.

"A few months later, whites turned out for affordable housing. It led to the first affordable housing development built in Sebastopol. That's the level of political sophistication we're talking about," he said. "We don't sweep ethnic differences under the rug."

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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