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Q&A: After King Verdict and Riots, Educator Discusses Race Relations

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Founded in 1971 by the civil-rights lawyer Morris Dees, the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., seeks to advance the legal rights of poor people and minorities.

The center is most known for its civil suits against leaders of the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist groups. In 1990, the center helped the family of a black student murdered by Skinheads in Portland, Ore., win a $12.5-million judgment against the White Aryan Resistance leader Tom Metzger and his son, John, for their involvement in promoting hate crimes.

As an outgrowth of its Klanwatch project, the center launched an education project to promote awareness of racial issues. Sara Bullard, the director of the education project, is the author of "Free At Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle,'' and also edits "Teaching Tolerance,'' the law center's biannual magazine for educators.

In the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict and the subsequent rioting in Los Angeles, Ms. Bullard discussed the state of race relations in the United States with Staff Writer Meg Sommerfeld.

Q. While membership in white-supremacist groups declined in the 1980's, violent acts classified as hate crimes increased. To what do you attribute this?

A. Well, I think it's apparent to anybody in any kind of public setting, especially the public schools, that we're raising a generation of children who, despite the fact that legal segregation is over and the civil-rights movement accomplished a lot of great things ... do not have a personal feeling of respect and understanding and community with each other.

That explains ... some of the hardening of racial prejudice. It doesn't fully explain the violence. I think a lot of the worst incidents we see are committed by young people who have severe problems themselves.

Q. When you say young people, what age do you mean?

A. More than half of the hate crimes we see are committed by people under age 25, and a great number of those are under age 18. These are people who have not found a place for themselves in life, who feel threatened, who feel like they need to exercise some control or power over their lives, and sometimes it's expressed through violence.

Q. What does the verdict in the Rodney King case and the subsequent rioting in Los Angeles and elsewhere reveal about the current state of race relations in America?

A. It reveals something that we've been knowing for years at the law center, and that is that our country is bitterly divided along racial lines and ethnic lines, that we're not doing enough to build a sense of community among ourselves and other people. And that, if we continue to ignore these divisions between us, then we're going to continue to see violence.

Q. What impact do you think the riots will have on children in the Los Angeles area?

A. It's sad to think of the impact. It's going to be very personal and very devastating for a lot of these children. ... The scale on which that happened will have a lifelong impact on those children.

Q. What impact do you think the images of the riots on television will have on children elsewhere?

A. I know that it has had a disturbing effect on children across the nation. I was visiting a friend in Fort Lauderdale [Fla.], and her 7-year old son was asking about things he was seeing on the news, and he thought they were down at his corner video store.

So we have to make sure that we talk about them. ... We need to talk not just about the rioting, but what led up to it, the system of justice, how things work.

[Children] need a deeper understanding of the problems that resulted in that verdict, and the problems that were expressed in the rioting.
Q. How can school officials help to foster positive attitudes about race among their students as they discuss these issues?

A. First of all, they can talk freely about these issues. Kids have opinions, they ... want to talk about them. Teachers have a responsibility to guide these discussions with some solid focus on basic values like fairness and honesty and democracy.

I think that teaching conflict-resolution skills is something that every school in the country ought to be doing.

There's a lot of violence in school right now, and a lot of violence on the streets. We have to be able to give our children the skills to be able to disagree and express differences without killing each other.

Q. What can individual teachers do in their classrooms?

A. One thing ... is to be a model of tolerance, caring, mutual respect, peacemaking. Sometimes that's not easy. As human beings, we find ourselves reacting in ways that are prejudicial or stereotypical. Teachers above all need to model behaviors that encourage harmony and understanding and peace among students.

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