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"Public Education, Policy Initiatives, Paradigm Shift,"

by National Council of La Raza November/December 1997 issue of Poverty & Race


Public Education

The Initiative should promote increased public understanding of diverse perspectives on race and related issues. Adoption of this "public education" objective makes sense for three reasons. First, on the merits, we believe improvements in race relations will be predicated in large part on increased public understanding of the diverse views of various communities. The Initiative should, therefore, have an explicit commitment to educating all of us about each others' perspectives.

Second, adoption of a "public education" focus will reduce real or perceived conflict over the Initiative's mission and mandate. In preliminary discussions leading up to the establishment of the Initiative, NCLR advocated vigorously that the Initiative should be fully inclusive of the issues and perspectives of Latinos. We believe that a reframing of the issue along the lines we suggest avoids the need to select any single "correct" perspective and permits all legitimate perspectives to be affirmed.

Third, the objective is both measurable and achievable. Organizations such as the National Opinion Research Center, the National Conference (of Christians and Jews). the American Jewish Committee and others poll regularly on issues related to race; perhaps one or more sets of these polls could be adapted to attempt to measure changes in public attitudes and factual understandings on these issues. In addition, this President has demonstrated his ability to use the power of the bully pulpit and his own considerable rhetorical skills to promote and improve public understanding of complex issues.

Policy Initiatives

The Initiative should identify, prioritize and promote policy objectives that tend to unify, rather than polarize, the public. Many, arguably most, policy issues related to race are the subject of serious ideological and partisan debate. We do not argue that these should necessarily be avoided; NCLR is itself a vigorous advocate on a number of controversial issues. We do argue, however, that policy proposals that can be framed in inclusive, unifying terms have the greatest likelihood of enactment. Specifically, we believe that the Advisory Board should recommend:

· More vigorous enforcement of basic civil rights laws. Even the most vigorous opponents of affirmative action purport to support the enforcement of basic anti-discrimination laws. Given this apparent consensus, we believe it would be highly appropriate for the Advisory Board to recommend substantial increases in funding for the federal government's civil rights enforcement "infrastructure."

· Provision of English language and literacy training to all who need it. Few public policy issues are as divisive and confusing as language policy, in all of its different contexts (English-only laws, bilingual education, bilingual ballots, etc.). However, both "language restrictionists" and multiculturalists" appear to agree on one theme -- it is in the interest of non-English speakers and the society at-large to promote English language acquisition. Despite this apparent consensus, much of the policy debate is focused on the divisive aspects of the issue rather than on the single unifying theme. We believe the Advisory Board can help cut this proverbial "Gordian Knot" by proposing a major new policy initiative that, over time, will assure that every non-English-speaking resident of the U.S. is afforded the opportunity to learn to speak, read and write English.

· Best practices in reducing racial tensions and addressing racial conflicts. While most Americans would agree with the notion that we need to do more to reduce racial tension and conflict, there is little agreement about how we should go about doing so. Numerous materials and "diversity consultants" are widely available, and several organizations are attempting to identify, assess and promote effective "best practices" in promoting healthy race relations. Notwithstanding these efforts, the efficacy of specific approaches to addressing specific types of situations and problems has yet to be demonstrated in a rigorous, empirical manner. We believe that the Advisory Board and the Initiative can be helpful in both identifying and promotmg effective best practices by:

- Sponsoring and commissioning literature reviews, research and expert discussions designed to identify and promote programs, mechanisms and practices that have proven effective in preventing, reducing and/or ameliorating racial tensions and conflicts.

- Identifying and supporting private and public agencies capable of assisting governments, corporations and individuals to appropriately address racial tensions and conflicts, including state-local human relations commissions, university-based programs, religious institutions and other private organizations, the Community Relations Service and other federal agencies.

- Articulating, and encouraging the President to articulate, a "new ethos" in race relations that explicitly promotes reconciliation and healing. We believe that rational but direct discussions about race are far healthier than the traditional adversarial conversa-tions about race -- in which race is used as a weapon to advance an ideological or political agenda.

Paradigm Shift

The Initiative should identify and promote a "new paradigm" for future discussions of race relations in the U.S. The traditional "melting pot" paradigm is clearly inapplicable to communities like African Americans, who were excluded from "the pot" by slavery, Jim Crow laws and persistent discrimination. Latinos believe that other traditional paradigms about race simply fail to adequately capture, explain or describe the condition of Latinos in the U.S. For example, the traditional "black-white" paradigm obviously fails to include most Latinos. Similarly, however, the "immigrant" paradigm in which Latinos are often pigeon-holed cannot account for two-thirds of Hispanics who are native-born and the millions who can trace their ancestry 150 years back to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (Mexican Americans) or 100 years back to the end of the Spanish American War (Puerto Ricans, Cubans, residents of Guam). Neither the "slavery" nor "immigrant" paradigms help to explain or promote understanding about these people, who became "Americans by conquest."

But Latinos are by no means alone in feeling excluded or ignored in conversations about race; the condition of Native Americans, Asian Americans, Afro-Latinos, Arab Americans, African and Caribbean immigrants, multi-racial people and many White ethnics are also not fully addressed by traditional paradigms.

We suggest that a new paradigm is needed, one that is sufficiently broad to encompass the condition of all Americans, and our relationships to one another. Such a paradigm should include:

· A powerful metaphor, which might include:

- A symphony orchestra in which each instrument retains its individuality but contributes to the sound of the whole; or

- A stew, in which the ingredients are partially "melted" (in a pot no less), while retaining their original character; or

- A mosaic, in which individual pieces of different sizes, colors and textures combine to form a beautiful, artistic whole; or

- Some other easily explainable, visually appealing graphic image.

· A "language of public discourse which permits us to discuss racial and ethnic differences and tensions without offending but also without resorting to exclusive use of "politically correct" euphemisms that do not offend but do not illuminate either. While we may make mistakes along the way, the conversation is too important to be avoided; the deliberations of the Advisory Board could be a "safe harbor" for these difficult but essential conversations.


We asked a number of prominent persons to provide some brief advice of their own to the Advisory Board. We are sending these "instructions " directly to the seven Board Members at their office addresses and to Advisory Board Executive Director Judy Winston. Additional invited comments will appear in the Jan./Feb. P&R, and we will consider publishing unsolicited comments from P&R readers (those should arrive here -- disc and/or e-mail greatly appreciated -- by Dec. 8). Everything we publish on the subject in that issue will also be sent, in advance of publication, directly to those eight persons.


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