Cohen & Solomon: Not in Our Town

In recent months, an enormous amount of news coverage has focused on the great national divide known as "race." Media words on the subject seem to come easily -- perhaps too easily. Writers produce a steady stream of recycled notions. TV anchors and politicians speak with scripted phrases that roll off tongues while scrolling down TelePrompTers. To many of us, the verbiage often sounds glib, overheated or pointless. Yet, backing away from communication about prejudice is no solution. "It is not difference which immobilizes us most but silence," observed Audre Lorde, an African-American poet. "What is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised and misunderstood." If you're among the white people who have gotten tired of hearing about racism, imagine how you'd feel if you had to keep encountering racism. In the United States, white people commonly know more about racism than they're willing to acknowledge. Those of us who are white can rest assured that we'll be shielded from a barrage of subtle and overt racial bias that keeps falling elsewhere, every day. We're aware, at least dimly, that others are not so privileged. Our society is quite adept at papering over institutionalized racism: from unfair bank-loan practices and red-lined neighborhoods to the dreadfully inadequate schools for millions of black and Latino children. But there's nothing subtle about the racism that has increasingly manifested itself in violent "hate crimes." If our society is going to promote a strong anti-racist ethic, then a wide range of people must take responsibility for speaking up and speaking out. On an extraordinary TV program set for nationwide broadcast, they do. The program -- a documentary titled Not In Our Town -- will air on more than 200 public television stations between mid- December and early January. The TV special does more than document how residents of Montana's largest city (Billings, population 84,000) united to overcome white-supremacist groups. The half-hour program also provides a model for how each of us -- wherever we live -- can respond with assertive pride in our shared humanity. A former police chief of Billings is blunt. "Hate groups have learned through experience that if a community doesn't respond, then the community accepts," Wayne Inman says in the documentary. "Silence is acceptance to them." During 1993, alarming events escalated in Billings. First, hate flyers and KKK newspapers appeared. Then, "skinheads" harassed Native American children on their way home from school. Assaults on gay people intensified. Early on, the city's Central Labor Council passed a resolution condemning those attacks. Hundreds of people attended rallies against hatred; 6,000 signed a statement. More than 100 local organizations passed resolutions condemning hate activity in Billings. But bigots stepped up their offensive. They desecrated graves in a Jewish cemetery, overturning tombstones. Skinheads appeared at a small black church, standing in the back of the chapel with their arms folded ominously. Late one autumn night, swastikas and hate messages were painted on the side of the house of a Native American family. Thirty volunteers from the painters' union quickly responded by repainting the house. Rather than passively report on these events, the Billings Gazette showed that a daily newspaper can be a vitally active part of a community. After a cinder block shattered a window displaying a Hanukkah menorah and crashed into the bedroom of a Jewish child, the newspaper published a full-page color picture of a menorah. The idea swept through town: Homes, churches and local stores taped the picture of a menorah to their windows. "By late December, nearly 10,000 people in Billings, Montana, had menorahs in their windows," the documentary reports. The program concludes with an upbeat scenario: "Today -- not in our town. Tomorrow -- not in our country." Television shows usually come across as ends in themselves. But California Working Group, the independent producers of Not In Our Town (aided by the San Francisco-based Institute for Alternative Journalism), have been encouraging grassroots efforts, including community-based forums and classroom projects. Boosted by a lead-up dubbed "Not In Our Town Week" (Dec. 10-17), the program aims to stimulate ongoing discussion and action. On the last page of his last book, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about what he called "the fierce urgency of now." During the next few weeks, "Not In Our Town" is likely to rekindle a sense of fierce urgency in communities across our troubled and beloved country.

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