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"Knitting the Nation,"

by S. M. Miller November/December 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

The Advisory Board has two audiences, people of color and all Americans. It has educational, policy, political and community functions. Its contribution should be to provide a new basis for overcoming discrimination and changing the tone of American society. It should provide a report card on the current racial scene, directions to take and a call to realizing positive American values.

Educationally, the Advisory Board should report on the progress in reducing discrimination and improving racial attitudes. It should then go on to analyze the difficulties that exist, emphasizing the plight of those in the race-poverty intersections and focusing on institutionalized barriers to greater economic and social equality for those in and out of the intersections. Continuing in current directions will not solve the nation's racial problems and tensions. For example, how do educational institutions have to change in order to foster civic learning and employment opportunities for those groups presently not doing well in school?

Institutional barriers include the changes in American industry which limit entry jobs with good pay and promotion potentials, the hidden biases built into selection processes for jobs and higher education, police and judicial treatment of racial-ethnic groups, the maintenance of residential segregation practices, inadequate public and educational services. It should demonstrate how low respect for particular groups limits their opportunities and aspirations.

If the Advisory Board could open up dialogue about the contemporary interplay of class and race -- rescuing "class" from its admissibility that is limited to speaking of "the middle class" -- it would be a great contribution. For many white groups face economic, educational and social barriers somewhat similar to those experienced by people of color.

Politically, the Advisory Board should seek to widen support for important changes. Since the number of groups now identified as "people of color" is growing and since African-Americans will be a declining percentage of people of color, the Board should embrace all people of color (and pay some attention to all poor people). Exclusive focus on African-Americans is not an effective political stance today. Promoting interracial political coalitions, locally and nationally, is crucial. Highlighting areas of common interest would be important. The Advisory Board should address the low voting turnout of people of color and what can be done about that as a problem of democracy and representation. Since the majority of the poor are not people of color, stressing common economic conditions and interests would contribute to the possibility of action. Political weakness is economically and socially disabling.

Policy analyses and recommendations should deal with ways of overcoming institutional barriers and promoting greater respect for people of color. The emphasis should be on how the economy and society would improve if the situations of people of color advance. A laundry list of narrow proposals should be avoided; clearly specified lines of action should be offered.

"Civil society" is emphasized in today's political parlance. What it could mean for people of color should be highlighted. With devolution and the enhanced roles of private and non-profit institutions, inequalities between communities, defined racially and/or economically, will likely grow. Helping to utilize and enlarge community assets of the neighborhoods of people of color is essential. What can government do to strengthen civil society in racial communities, particularly those suffering great economic distress?

The Advisory Board should also speak to people of color and stress the importance of strengthening their communities, developing leaders who can build and strengthen institutions. moving beyond a counter-productive defensiveness which discourages discussing positive and negative responses to on-going stresses. It should analyze the implications of the debate in African-American circles of integration or separatism.

Finally, the Advisory Board should address the political football of "values." It is important to move discussion of race in the United States from an obsessive focus on issues such as affirmative action to the basic values of this nation about democracy, liberty, equality and fraternity. Instrumental objectives need a value base.

S. M. Miller is member of PRRAC’s Board of Directors.

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