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"Bring Institutional Leaders To The Table,"

by Karen K. Narasaki January/February 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

While promoting community dialog may be helpful in addressing the old-fashioned in-your-face racism that still flourishes in America, it is important that the President and his Advisory Board reach out to those who lead our institutions. Much of discrimination today is institutionalized. Unless the leaders of corporations, universities, school boards, hospitals and other institutions in America commit themselves to action, this discrimination will persist.

The first town hall meeting in Akron suffered greatly from its lack of focus. Race issues in our country have deep and complex dimensions. If the Advisory Board is serious, then the discussions must be focused so that issues actually are illuminated; otherwise, they risk leaving the American public more deeply cynical and despairing about our ability to reach any reconciliation.

The President and the Advisory Board should bring together corporate chief executive officers and ask them what they are doing to address this problem and what they are willing to do in the future. Corporations are important both as employers and as suppliers of goods and services. Different industries, like insurance companies and real estate companies, could also be targeted to discuss issues that arise in their arenas.

Americans could benefit from hearing corporate leaders publicly discuss problems of racial inequities and the continuing need for affirmative action and effective anti-discrimination enforcement measures to ensure equal opportunity for women and minorities in their corporations and for the communities in which they operate. What are they doing to help their employees and their customers? For example, last year Aetna Insurance Company held a two-hour discussion for their employees on race, gender, sexual orientation and culture in the workplace at the corporate headquarters.

Our academic institutions are obviously key to addressing issues of race, from kindergarten to post-graduate studies. The Advisory Board has already determined that education is one of their priority areas. They should meet with university presidents so that Americans can discuss the role of higher education. Americans need to hear what colleges are doing to provide opportunities for our future leaders and to learn to value, understand and respect each other. Presidents of the nation's PTAs and school boards could be brought together with teachers and principals to discuss the issues faced in elementary and secondary schools, as well as programs they feel are needed.

The President and the Advisory Board should bring together groups of students to share their ideas of what works and what doesn't work in their schools. Students often have shown themselves willing to be more candid than adults. The National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium~ s 1996 annual Audit of Anti-Asian Violence reported a disturbing trend of racially motivated violence in our schools. However, most Americans are unaware of the problem.

Hospitals and other health care institutions such as the American Medical Association also need to be brought to the table. The inequality of access to quality care is scandalous, and leaders of these institutions need to address this growing problem.

I could go on. Public transportation systems are clearly a problem. Women and minorities still are not fully represented in the leadership of our unions. Study after study by the American Bar Association and various state court systems show that access to justice is all too often a matter of race.

For the President and his Advisory Board to have a lasting impact on this age-old issue, they need to ensure that our institutions are committed to working on it long after the current media attention fades.

Karen K. Narasaki is Executive Director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium. She is Chairperson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights' Compliance/Enforcement Committee.

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