by David Gruber, Director of Public Involvement

This Advisor discusses the persistence of an issue in our nation and examines ways in which dialogue can be generated between disparate groups in our society to move toward ameliorating racial and ethnic divisions.

Racial issues are very much with us, susceptible to progress at times but resistant to resolution. Debates over immigration policy, multiculturalism, welfare reform, criminal justice, and The Bell Curve—all attest to the persistence and pervasiveness of racial issues in American politics and culture — the most heterogeneous on earth.

For decades, the chief strategy for destroying racial barriers has been integration. In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Congress began in earnest to dismantle the physical divisions between blacks and whites while emboldening legal challenges to racial injustice. These efforts championed equal opportunity and access, harboring the assumption that proximity of the races would lead to greater understanding and tolerance.

Progress in bringing the races together has been real but far from satisfactory. Integration comes about slowly — if at all, in some areas — and does not always culminate in tolerance. Members of different racial and ethnic groups still must learn to communicate to make integration work. Now is the time to renew the dialogue among them to bridge the gaps that remain.

Where Are We Now

That the effort is necessary is demonstrated by two major studies: one published in 1994 by two University of Michigan (U of M) researchers and the other a 1993 survey conducted by Lou Harris for the National Conference of New York.

The U of M study reports modest gains in urban desegregation. Between 1980 and 1990, 191 out of the 232 metropolitan areas studied experienced declines in segregation, to varying degrees. These declines were discovered chiefly in newer southern and western metropolitan areas with large stocks of new housing, smaller populations, a growing black middle class, and neighborhoods with a relatively small number of blacks compared to whites.

There were limits to this progress, however. The U of M study found that the number of urban areas classified as moderately segregated rose from 29 to 55 over the decade. It also cited another study conducted in Detroit that showed increasing white tolerance for mixed neighborhoods — up to a point. More whites surveyed in 1992 felt comfortable with neighborhoods up to one‐​third black than did whites in 1976, but comfort declined appreciably as the mix approached one‐half.

The U of M study found older northern cities such as Gary, Indiana, Detroit, and Chicago to be the most segregated in the nation. Anchorage, Alaska; Lawton, Oklahoma; and Jacksonville, North Carolina, were the least. While new laws and changes in racial attitudes over the past few decades have had their effect, the task of bridging racial and ethnic divisions will continue to move slowly, particularly in the North and Northeast, the study predicted.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) acknowledged this trend in a 1994 report entitled “Patterns of Diversity and Change in Southeast Michigan.” “The age and government structure of the Detroit metropolitan area make change difficult,” the report said. Desegregation in the Detroit area has been stymied by population losses, a slow‐​growing economy, and a proliferation of mostly white suburbs. SEMCOG expressed some confidence, however, that the trends promoting desegregation in other urban areas will eventually do the same for Detroit.

The Lou Harris survey, entitled “Taking America’s Pulse,” found that contact among racial and ethnic groups appears to be the norm — another signal that desegregation is progressing. Most Americans say they associate with people of different backgrounds on a regular basis as friends, neighbors, fellow worshipers, co‐​workers, employers, teachers, shopkeepers, or police officers.

Despite the camaraderie, whites and minorities see racial issues very differently, the survey says. A majority of whites believe that African, Latino, and Asian Americans enjoy equal opportunity or treatment in education, employment, housing, justice, and the credit market. But majorities of these groups believe that they lack opportunities equal to those of whites, the survey says. The gulf in perception between whites and minorities is wide, with each group unable to shake certain stereotypes of the other, the survey reports.

Yet the survey also portrays Americans as understanding of diversity, supportive of integration, and interested in dialogue among racial and ethnic groups to address such issues as improving neighborhoods and schools, aiding the homeless, protecting children from violence, and reducing racial tensions. “The missing ingredient is leadership at all levels willing to call for such joint efforts,” the survey says.

Models for Change

Leaders will have to address a constant theme in race relations: conflict and confrontation. These take verbal and physical forms, and their legacy is one of violence and injury to their victims. Nonetheless, two books whose ideas resonate in these times of renewed racial concern say conflict and confrontation are essential to developing tolerance in society at large. Programs incorporating these attributes can do the same at the organizational and community levels.

Education plays a key role in promoting social tolerance, according to The Tolerant Society, a 1986 book written by Lee C. Bollinger, former University of Michigan Law School dean and current president of Dartmouth College. Bollinger writes that the U.S. Supreme Court, by providing a wide berth for extremist speech under the First Amendment, can help guide individuals and society in developing a greater capacity for tolerance. It can do so by explaining through case law the value of conflict and confrontation in this setting and by demonstrating restraint in policing them.

Bollinger sees intolerance as an outgrowth of community identity, which is expressed through community beliefs and values. Those who threaten that identity by expressing opposing beliefs and values can expect an intolerant response from the community in the form of social condemnation or threatened legal sanctions.

By allowing intolerance to emerge, however, the Supreme Court, and the judiciary generally, also provided an opportunity for learning to deal with it. The community that would respond intolerantly to extremist speech may choose instead “to exercise extraordinary self‐​restraint toward behavior acknowledged to be bad but that can evoke feelings that lead us to behave in ways we must learn to temper and control,” Bollinger writes. Self‐​restraint developed toward speech acts could also be applied to nonspeech acts, since the roots of intolerance are the same for both he says.

With self‐​restraint comes the ability to separate ourselves from our beliefs, compromise when necessary, and at times, accept defeat, Bollinger says. All of these traits are necessary to the proper functioning of a democracy. Tolerance becomes a way of thinking about conflict and otherness that can reshape individual or community identity. Through toleration “we create the community, define the values of that community, and affirm a commitment to and confidence in those values,” Bollinger writes.

The benefits of coercion are presented in The Uses of Disorder, a 1970 book by New York University Sociologist Richard Sennett. Sennett prescribes a purposeful anarchism to force tolerance upon urban inhabitants. Reducing local government safeguards against conflict — police intervention, zoning, and other forms of social control — would require urban residents to confront neighbors unlike themselves and negotiate a peaceful, if uneasy, coexistence.

Urban anarchism, Sennett writes, would overcome a flaw in personal development that replicates itself in community life. Adolescents, faced with the task of building an identity, confront an onslaught of new and potentially painful experiences that threaten that identity. Having few resources with which to deal with such threats, they protect themselves by predetermining what the outside world is like in order to bring it under control. As a consequence they adopt a defensive strategy against the world that locks out new experience.

This need for a purified identity, as Sennett terms it, transmutes itself to the community level, where like‐​minded people create a community identity based solely on the fact that they are alike. The community, too, becomes a shield against experience and allows “modern people the chance to be cowards and hide from one another,” according to Sennett.

To crack the psychological barriers against outside experience, urban inhabitants must learn how their preconceptions of the outside world fall short of reality. To accomplish this, Sennett recommends a social life of “face‐​to‐​face encounters” replete with social conflict. With government intervention reduced, conflicts over differences, including racial differences, would be allowed to play themselves out. When conflict matters for survival, Sennett says, “men learn to talk to their enemies, learn to see the dimensions of that which they oppose.” The need to survive, coupled with the power to resolve their own differences, would keep community members from becoming violent.

Bollinger and Sennett believe confrontation and conflict are necessary for learning tolerance and must be given room to develop, though the practicality of Sennett’s approach in today’s urban landscape is open to question. The two writers also illustrate two key aspects of learning tolerance — education and coercion. Both factors play important roles, though in different forms, in programs designed to develop tolerance at the organizational and community levels.

Principles for a Renewed Dialogue

The federal assault on segregation in the 1950s and 1960s spawned a number of training programs designed to help organizations meet equal opportunity requirements or to increase individual awareness and sensitivity to racial and ethnic issues. These programs were based on structured conflict and confrontation designed to bring about lasting change in behavior or attitude in organizations and communities. In 1987 the experiences of many race‐​training practitioners were brought together by John W. Shaw, Peter G. Nordlie, and Richard M. Shapiro in Strategies for Improving Race Relations.

Organizational Change

Education and coercion are critical to fostering change in organizations, according to Strategies contributors Mark Chesler and Hector Delgado. Education for these writers includes informing and persuading program participants in order to foster new behaviors. Persuasion may take the form of organizational preferences for certain types of behavior or dress that are transmitted to employees by management or peers.

Coercion may take the form of authoritative declarations of mission regarding race relations, or through incentives and punishments. Both elements are necessary, the writers note, for “coercion without persuasion often builds resistance and eventual sabotage,” while “persuasion without coercion permits a wide range of voluntary acts that may not achieve coherent purposes.”

A program built on these characteristics, the writers say, should be used within a strong framework that includes a clear and specific organizational policy, commitment from legitimate and credible policy makers within the organization, resources for implementation, and the involvement of frontline actors who can demonstrate to the public the internal changes under way

Community Change

Unlike groups within organizations, community groups that engage in race sensitivity training are likely to be impermanent and comprised of volunteers. Such groups may be amenable to education, but there are few sources of coercion to ensure long‐​range results. These problems may be overcome by capitalizing on volunteerism and running many such groups throughout the community, suggests Strategies contributor Peter B. Smith. The most effective groups will either be homogenous or have equal numbers of whites and minorities, he says.

General Considerations

Sensitivity groups, according to Smith, commonly discuss race at the institutional, cultural, and personal levels and plan future activities to foster change. Training workshops must have a clear purpose, and workshop leaders should exemplify the behavior sought as the program’s outcome, especially if the leaders are racially mixed. Discussion leaders should be able to balance confrontation with support and be able to help workshop participants implement their action plans.

Next Steps

Programs to improve race relations should be preceded by an assessment of the organization or community to determine how it promotes racial or ethnic division, according to the editors of Strategies. Sources of conflict — personal, institutional or cultural — should be identified early on. Program planning activities should include representatives of those groups who will be participating in the program; commitment must be obtained especially from those who have the power to implement plans for change. Program outcomes should be monitored and action plans developed to further the program’s momentum. The program itself should be evaluated at its conclusion.

In 1992 the Study Circles Resource Center in Connecticut, a project of Topsfield Foundation, Inc., wrote that progress in race relations had stalled. In an effort to revive the momentum, the five‐​year‐​old center developed a program for dialogue that incorporates many of the features distilled in Strategies. The center provides handbooks and discussion guides to local governments, churches and synagogues, businesses, and civic and community groups. The materials provide suggestions for tailoring programs to specific communities. Study circles programs have been implemented on a communitywide basis in Lima and Springfield, Ohio, where they were spearheaded by the mayor’s office or city agencies. Other study circle initiatives are under way in Louisiana, Virginia, and New Mexico.

New York City initiated a different program following the 1992 riots in Crown Heights. The Increase the Peace Volunteer Corps (IPVC) program trained participants in racial and ethnic awareness and community organizing. Program trainees proposed projects that were designed and implemented by interracial groups of volunteers.

The IPVC program was based on two ideas, according to its director Robert F. Sherman. First, “armed with the proper tools and training, group members or neighborhood residents themselves possess the greatest potential for resolving conflicts and easing intergroup tensions. Second, IPVC was based on the notion that face‐​to‐​face contact among members of traditionally segregated groups — publicly visible to the neighborhood — can have the most far‐​reaching effects in promoting intergroup peace.”

In the spring – summer 1994 issue of The National Civic Review Sherman and Martha L. McCoy, co‐​director of the Study Circles Resource Center, offer four keys for successful community programs dealing with race: (1) hold large‐​scale face‐​to‐​face dialogue among people of different racial and class groups, (2) involve citizens who do not ordinarily participate in civic affairs, (3) garner support from racially diverse community leaders and stakeholders, and (4) develop an institutional structure to organize and implement the program.


Addressing racial and ethnic conflict head on is a painful task. Techniques have been developed and tested for using the confrontation and conflict that arises in structured dialogue to develop tolerance. The nation has made significant progress toward integration and peaceful coexistence among the races, and appears prepared to recommit itself to overcoming the divisions that remain. The leadership to do so is emerging at all levels in cities across the nation. That more join the effort is crucial to its success, for only shared dedication will help the nation conclude its most intractable piece of unfinished business.

Copyright © 1995