Some positive approaches to ethnic relations

Sam Smith

Because of the cruel  history of ethnic relations there is an emphasis on problems, crises and outrageous examples, but far less attention to the positive results of improved relations and how to reach them. Here are just a few suggestions that I’ve gathered from my own life.

Treat multicultural relations as an asset rather than just as a problem to be solved: Being involved with those of another culture or studying these cultures can easily be both educational and enjoyable. Among the facts we ignore is that about 17% of marriages are bi-ethnic. This is more than the percent of Americans who are black or latino yet we seldom talk about cross cultural relationships in the way we do individual ethnicity. In politics we sometimes just ignore it. As with Barack Obama, who is universally described as black even though he had a white mother and who spent more time at Harvard Law School than he did with a black parent. And did you know that Kamila Harris was the daughter of a mother from India and a father from Jamaica? Or that key Senate candidate Sarah Gideon also had a father from India and a mother from Armenia? This is real America, folks.

Among the places where we find multiculturalism working are shopping malls, sports arenas and ethnic restaurants. Why? Because most think they’re getting a decent deal.

Use the term ethnicity rather than race: As an anthropology major I learned early that the term race was not only a bad definition, it had racist roots. That’s why I use the word ethnicity  reflecting a culture rather than an immutable genetic stature. Here’s how I descrbied it in my 1997 book, Sam Smith’s  Great Political Repair Manual:

Give or take a few thousand years, it’s unlikely that those of a Nordic skin complexion would stay that way living under the African sun. Similarly, the effects of a US diet are strong enough that the first generations of both European and Asian Americans found themselves looking up at their grandchildren. In such ways adaptation mimics what many think of as race.

But who needs science when we have our own eyes? If it looks like race, that’s good enough for us. Further, we are obsessed with the subject even as we say we wish to ignore it.  A few years back, a study of urban elections coverage found five times as many stories about race as about taxes. We can’t even agree on what race is. In the 1990 census, Americans said they belonged to some 300 different races or ethnic groups. American Indians divided themselves into 600 tribes and Latinos into 70 categories..

Teach the young about ethnic diversity: Does your elementary or junior high school teach about our different ethnicities?  Why do we leave the task to Fox News and MSNBC, or worse to Donald Trump, when it’s such an important part of our lives? Why do we leave only its problems in clear view?

Even if your school system doesn’t allow for cultural civics, student assemblies, churches and public libraries can be used to introduce folks to a variety of ethnicities. .

The key is to teach the world as it exists not just as a moral issue but as reality. How do students learn to adapt to and enjoy this real world? You start by learning how varied the world really is and that you are just a small part of it.

Don’t let ethnicity overwhelm all our other differences: In the half century that I was part of the white minority in DC I learned how little terms like black and white really told you about someone. Better was which neighborhood did you live in? What sort of work did you do? What is your religion? What’s your job and your politics?

DC, for example, is one of the leading cities for black Catholicism. DC also had a large free black population going back to the early 19th century. And blacks on upper 16th Street are much better off than those in Anacostia. And that’s just for starters.

Bring the police back to our communities: Police departments don’t need to be defunded, they need to be retrained, and reabsorbed into the communities that they serve. Along with other government agencies they have increasingly become absorbed into their own values and procedures. A Department of Justice report in 1988 expressed part of this:

Police have tried in the past to control neighborhoods plagued by predators without involving residents. Concerned, for example, about serious street crime, police made youths, especially minority youths, the targets of aggressive field interrogations. The results, in the United States during the 1960’s and more recently in England during the early 1980’s, were disastrous. Crime was largely unaffected. Youths already hostile to police became even more so. Worst of all, good citizens became estranged from police. Citizens in neighborhoods plagued by crime and disorder were disaffected because they simply would not have police they neither knew nor authorized whizzing in and out of their neighborhoods “takin’ names and kickin’ ass.” Community relations programs were beside the point. Citizens were in no mood to surrender control of their neighborhoods to remote and officious police who showed them little respect. Police are the first line of defense in a neighborhood? Wrong – citizens are!

Among the ways to deal with this disconnect are these:

Get cops out of their cars to spend more time in neighborhoods and get to know the people there. Just answering calls won’t do it. As the report above noted, one study found that ten percent of addresses then were responsible for 60% of police calls. A black DC police chief, Isaac Fulwood, instituted more community based policing and, as the Washington Post reported, “is advocating a back-to-basics style of patrolling, which will include permanently assigning officers to a given neighborhood, and increasing foot and scooter patrols.” Back when my sons were growing up in DC we even had neighborhoood police boys clubs playing baseball against each other with cops as  coaches and umpires

Have officers visit schools and talk with students about dealing with their problems and following the law. When, later in his career, Fulwood was chair of the US Parole Commission, he would take inmates on parole to help him address public school students.

Offer a college course on the ethnicities of the community. The University of DC offers such a course for police officers.

Have a lawyer and one or more therapists assigned to every police precinct to provide education and assistance to police officers. Being a good officer is an immensely complicated job and continuing assistance would not only make them better officers, it would help them see themselves as more professional and less just  as tough guys. The therapists could also accompany the officers on family abuse calls.

There’s lots more but the aforementioned would be a start towards redefining policing so it is seen more generally as a community asset rather than another problem, especially for minorities.

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