Marking Anniversary Of Brown Ruling, Clinton Assails Separatism
President Clinton last week marked the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down school segregation by calling for unity and condemning the racial separatism preached by figures such as the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
The United States "must celebrate Brown [v. Board of Education] with the realization that a lot of us folks have a mood that threatens to sever the ties that bind us,'' the President said at a commemorative dinner held here by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
"And,'' he added, "we must confront a new segregationism that would tear us apart.''
He remarked that the advocates of separatism come from "across the entire political and racial spectrum,'' and that, because of them, the nation is having trouble living up to Brown's affirmation of the need for integration.
In the decades since the May 17, 1954, decision, the task of unifying American society appears only to have become more complicated, many observers agree.
As the nation and its schools have become far more diverse, new permutations of racial and ethnic conflict have emerged. Increasingly, educators have had to confront tensions between groups more various than just blacks and whites.
Clashing at School
In another commemorative speech last week, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said that "with seven million new children entering our school system, the issue will not be how two races get along, but how children of many races and cultures learn together.''
Among other incidents reported during this school year, dozens of Hispanic and Native American students brawled at an assembly in the Fallbrook Union High School District near San Diego last fall.
Also last fall, native-born African-Americans and Jamaican immigrants clashed at Philadelphia's Martin Luther King High School. Philadelphia has also seen run-ins between Palestinian and Puerto Rican students.
Last school year, the Steinmetz Academic Center, a high school in northwest Chicago, was the scene of violent clashes between Hispanic and Polish-born students.
The tensions there started as a dispute between two students and then escalated, Constantine P. Kiamos, the school's principal, recalled last week.
"Instead of being an individual against an individual, it became identifiable with one group against another group,'' Mr. Kiamos said. "It escalated from there, with each group rising to the defense of their national origin.''
"We were on the verge of an explosion,'' he added, noting that a total of about 40 students from the two groups clashed over a two-week period.
The school went on a full security alert, brought in a police human-relations team and community leaders, and took action to identify and discipline the instigators, he said.
Although the tensions have died down--all of the school's ethnic groups last week joined in hosting an "international night''--Mr. Kiamos said feels he cannot let his guard down in trying to recognize and quickly address tensions between ethnic groups.
Other evidence of the complicated state of racial and ethnic relations emerged in a study released this spring by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
The study, financed by the Joyce and Ford foundations, represents one of the first attempts to gauge how minority groups feel toward each other and toward whites. It also asked whites for their perceptions of minorities. More than 2,700 adults were asked to respond to various positive and negative stereotypes of different groups.
Although the blacks, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans surveyed tended to share a collective sense of being victims of discrimination by whites, they also were much more likely than whites to hold strong negative stereotypes of each other.
For example, at least 42 percent of the blacks and Hispanics surveyed agreed with statements characterizing Asian-Americans as untrustworthy in business, suspicious of other ethnic groups, or likely to feel superior to others. No more than 30 percent of whites agreed with such statements.
Minority-group members also appeared significantly more likely than whites to agree with negative stereotypes of blacks, Hispanics, Jews, and Catholics. Whites did rank high among the groups surveyed in their likelihood to hold negative views of Muslims.
But the study also found reason for hope of improving relations between various segments of U.S. society. For example, 68 percent of the respondents embraced the goal of full integration, while just 7 percent favored "separation of the races.'' Big majorities also favored teaching tolerance and appreciation of others, voiced moral objections to living in a country divided by race, and held that educating minorities is in the nation's best interest.
Danger in 'Diversity'?
Though the survey was notable for what it showed about minority groups' views of one another, the study cited as a prime obstacle to better race relations the tendency of whites not to acknowledge the tangible effects of discrimination on the lives of nonwhites. It found, for example, that more than 60 percent of whites answered affirmatively when asked whether the members of a given minority have equal access to a high-quality education.
That perception contrasts with the bleak outlook that Michael C. Dawson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, has found among blacks.
"There is widespread and deep pessimism in the black community about the possibility for racial progress, equality, integration, and justice within the United States,'' said Mr. Dawson, who recently surveyed 1,200 African-Americans and found that 50 percent favored the creation of a separate political party for blacks.
At a forum on race relations held here last week, participants argued that U.S. society has created a "market'' for those who preach racial division.
The forum was sponsored by the Center for the New American Community, a project of the Manhattan Institute, a think tank with offices in New York City and Washington.
The director of the center, Linda Chavez, a federal civil-rights official in the Reagan Administration, told the gathering that she disagreed with the idea that such divisions can be overcome by preaching appreciation of diversity.
"I think that it is very clear that, in our attempt to promote diversity, we are losing sight of what unites us,'' Ms. Chavez said.
"People are encouraged to elevate the importance of race and ethnicity in their lives'' she said, "and I think that is a recipe for disaster.''