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THE NATION / CULTURE : Racial Harmony Won't Trickle Down From Above--It Must Percolate Up

October 29, 1995|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a public-policy fellow at Pepperdine University and a senior fellow at Pacific Research Institute. He is also the author of "Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy" (Random)

For too long, the task of managing race relations has fallen on increasingly dysfunctional political and governmental institutions. The resulting emphasis on public solutions has largely turned racial dialogue into a battle of angry sound bites hurled to and fro by antagonists with vested interests in separation, not harmony.

If racial and ethnic reconciliation is to be achieved, a new approach is needed. In this sensitive arena of human relations, individuals need to work from a common set of assumptions, a foundation of shared values. And the driving forces behind this naturally grass-roots approach will be churches, synagogues, civic associations and neighborhood organizations, all manifesting the original ecumenical spirit of the civil rights movement.

"The poverty of this nation is really a poverty of morals and values," says Bishop Charles Blake of the 13,000-member West Angeles Church of God in Christ. "The only way to rebuild our communities is to teach those values aggressively, things that are essential to the operation of society, like a person's property is their property, a person's life is their life. These truths are critical to human relations."

Ultimately, this may mean bringing together such dissimilar groups as socially liberal Jews, theologically conservative African American Christians and fundamentalist Latinos, in addition to neighborhood-based organizations. "We have spiritual differences," comments the Rev. Kenneth C. Ulmer of Inglewood's 3,500-member Faithful Central Baptist Church, "but our common ground is our common belief in humanity. You cannot have racial reconciliation in an ethic vacuum.

"You in your synagogue, me in my congregation can be far more effective in building a coalition than all the high-profile figures and political baggage," Ulmer contends. "That is the way we started, and we got away from it."

In contrast to the political, legal and academic racial elites, grass-roots-based institutions such as West Angeles and Faithful Central gain little, in terms of government contracts, study awards, jobs or headlines, from contributing to racial and ethnic strife. When the headlines fade and the camera lights are turned off, the people in the pews have to pick up the pieces, deal with the consequences of lost jobs, sagging investment or murdered school children in their communities.

Like the fundamentalist black Christian or Latino churches, grass-roots organizations such as UNO or the anti-gang Comite Pro Paz en el Barrio, as well as Neighborhood Watch organizations throughout the city, have an interest in shunning the politics of racial brinkmanship. Although sometimes religiously inspired, these organizations' common interest is not to protect minority "rights" in the abstract, but to address the real security and economic concerns of their urban communities.

To these groups, the ideology of racial separatism and identity politics have little appeal. The South-Central Organizing Committee or the Vermont-Slauson Economic Development Corp., for example, cannot afford to separate black interests from those of potential Anglo investors, Asian shopkeepers or Latinos, who increasingly dominate their neighborhoods.

Some Jewish religious leaders are already attracted to the idea of anchoring racial reconciliation to shared values. Despite their long-standing ties to black elites, professional and political, these leaders are reaching out to theologically conservative black churches that are willing to stand up against the racist rhetoric of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and other African American leaders.

"I'm going to devote my energy to black church leaders who want to talk with the Jewish community and the white community," says New York-based Rabbi A. James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee. "The black leadership and academics are not really able to help in this, but the churches provide the opportunities for Jews and whites--and that all is not lost."

In many ways, Rudin suggests, the linkages with church leaders is reminiscent of the early days of the civil rights struggle when rabbis, ministers and priests led the drive against segregation in the South. Then, he recalls, blacks and Jews drew upon a common heritage to hurdle vast cultural and social barriers.

"Reverence rooted in the Hebrew Bible turned the slave-owners' church on its head with the Exodus story," says Rudin, a veteran of the civil rights movement. "That story is our story, too."

This willingness to span racial barriers by sharing values and mythologies extends beyond simply negating the Afrocentrists and separatists. The overlapping values of Christianity, Judaism and other traditional faiths also provide an effective basis for mass-based social action.

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