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Sandy Banks

When Racial Bias Emerges, Despite Our Best Efforts

September 19, 2000|Sandy Banks

Maybe it started back in middle school, the day her son was roughed up by a couple of black kids as he stood in the lunch line. Or maybe it was after that fight on the soccer field in ninth-grade P.E., when a group of Latino boys--kids he'd known since grade school--began jostling him every time they passed in the hall.

For his mother, it crystallized the day they talked about his college plans and he declared UC Santa Barbara his first choice, "because it's the UC with the most white kids."

And his mother--call her Miriam--is left wondering how her smart, kind, good-hearted son has come to see the world through the prism of ethnicity and race.

"He tells me it's nothing personal, that I should just get off his back, that he's old enough to have his own opinions about things," his mother said in her e-mail. "But it's breaking my heart. I can't help feeling like I've failed . . . [that] I've raised a boy who's racist."

She and her husband are soul-searching, wondering if it was something they said or did, something he absorbed from the media or picked up from the kids at school. "We always prided ourselves on being open-minded." She always had a mix of races in the fourth-grade classes she teaches in West L.A. Her husband, a junior college history instructor, has "quite a few black friends." Her sister is married to a Latino man.

"We're Jewish, and we've always talked to [our son] about . . . discrimination, how it's been used against us through history; how even today, people stereotype us and make assumptions based on our last name.

"Now I get so frustrated . . . when he gets into 'the black kids this . . . the Mexicans that . . .' and I wonder what I did wrong. We marched for civil rights in the '60s. And now we've got a bigot for a son."

She was embarrassed even to write me the note, she said. Because no matter how enlightened we think we are, things get dicey when we begin to talk about race, about heritage, about ethnicity. The dialogue, it seems, is either so superficial as to be meaningless, or so polarized we wind up screaming at each other across an unbreachable divide.

You are tolerant or you are a bigot. You embrace diversity or you condone racism. You are one of us or one of them.

It is easy to stand together on the high-profile cases--to be appalled when a white supremacist shoots up a Jewish day camp, when a trio of drunk rednecks drags a black man to his death, when a gay college student is beaten and left tied to a fence to die.

That, we recognize as hate. But what about the small stuff, the day-to-day expressions of prejudice that slip out when we're among friends or at work or in front of our kids?

"I can't stand the white guys in my office. They all think they run the place."

"My mom won't let me go to that mall anymore. Too many black kids hanging around."

"I hate driving through Chinatown. Asian drivers are the worst."

Innocent expressions of frustration? Or evidence of racism? Maybe a little of both . . . but no less dangerous for their lack of evil intent, say the folks behind a national campaign to reduce the impact of prejudice by raising its profile.

Called "Close the Book on Hate," the campaign is chaired by former Sen. Bill Bradley and sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League and Barnes & Noble Inc., the nation's largest bookseller. Its centerpiece is the book "Hate Hurts: How Children Learn and Unlearn Prejudice," written for the ADL by Caryl Stern-LaRosa and Ellen Hofheimer Bettmann and published by Scholastic Inc.

The $9.95 paperback explains how to answer the difficult questions about differences that young people of all age groups ask, how to comfort children victimized by prejudice, and how to foster respect for diversity in families, schools and communities.

In addition, Barnes & Noble stores across the country will offer free brochures ("101 Ways to Combat Prejudice") and sponsor a variety of events--from panel discussions among teenagers to story hours for children--and displays of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and photography aimed at illuminating the personal and social consequences of prejudice and bigotry.

The campaign was launched locally last week at the Santa Monica Barnes & Noble and earlier this month in a handful of other cities, including New York, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

"The response so far has been quite amazing," said Barnes & Noble spokeswoman Mary Ellen Keating. "People are really enthusiastic about the chance to do something positive. Our phones have been ringing off the hook from stores saying, 'We have to keep this going because the community response has been so great.' "

*

I'm not sure Miriam would find all the answers she seeks in "Hate Hurts," but the book does offer some sound advice toward the utopian goal of raising our kids to be bias-free.

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