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Immigration takes center stage at race healing conference

13th May 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Hazel Trice Edney
Contributing Writer

( – More than 50 years since the civil rights struggle for the right to vote and racial desegregation for African-Americans, a new kind of racial and ethnic battle is raging in America.

The issue of immigration, now at its peak in a bill before Congress, recently took center stage at a conference on racial healing. Modern day civil rights leaders say it is imperative that Blacks take the high road.

“Fifty years ago, Dr. King was sitting in a Birmingham Jail, contemplating the sum total of the movement that he was participating in and he was troubled,” said Rev. Alvin Herring, a training director for the PICO National Network, the nation’s oldest and largest faith-based community organizing group.

Herring continued, “He was troubled because he understood that there was a window open but it wouldn’t stay open forever. And he and others were going to have to figure out how to capitalize on the moment and do what was morally right, do what was just, do what God was asking of him and others to do. I think in many respects, we are back to that moment.”

The first to speak on a panel of civil rights leaders, Herring had set the tone for a hearty discussion on various issues. The setting, the W. K. Kellogg America Healing Conference held in Asheville, N. C. late last month, stirred up a rare level of free and uninhibited debate that largely included the issue of immigration and its implicit racial disparities.

“One of the largest groups of undocumented immigrants is Canadians in this country. Another is Irish in this country,” said NAACP President/CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous.

Jealous pointed out that these immigrants are regularly given cart blanch on American soil – mainly because of the color of their skin.

“You don’t see raids of their homes due to ordinances that limit the number of people who can sleep in a living room. We don’t see them seeking to enforce that on White households. But, we’ve seen it happen to Latinos. We’ve seen it happen to other groups of color,” Jealous said.

The annual Kellogg conference, part of a five-year initiative with a goal to start healing racism in America, featured discussions on a plethora of hot-button issues that continue to rage in America. At this forum, the immigration issue, still being debated in the U. S. Con­gress, took center stage with rights leaders focused on how to “change the narrative” – or the perspective from which immigration is currently viewed and the conversation surrounding it.

While a common complaint among African-Americans is that a burgeoning Latino population is taking up jobs, leaders say it is to the advantage of African-Americans to join the fight for immigration reform alongside the Hispanic population.

“While a large portion of undocumented immigrants are Latina, we’ve got to educate people that it’s people from Canada, that it’s people from Ireland, that it’s people from the African diaspora – Yes, Africa and the Caribbean,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial. “We’ve got to affirmatively indicate that this is a multi-dimensional, multi-cultural issue…We’ve got to affirmatively educate people about the importance of this.”

The author of an annual “State of Black America,” report which actually quantifies the effects of racism in America, Morial says African Americans should be the first to identify with and empathize with the problems faced by immigrants given the oppression history of Blacks in America.

“The African-American community has a responsibility to be on the right side of this issue,” Morial said. “We know oppression and repression having been treated as a second class person. So we can’t stand by the wayside, be spectators, embrace reactionary arguments in the face of one of the great human rights challenges of our time.”

The moderator, former CNN correspondent Soledad Obrien, agreed that the common false stories that have been told about immigrants must be corrected. “The story is that they are running across the borders and taking or destroying America,” she said.

Hundreds in the audience, listening to the conversation, were invited to weigh in or ask questions.

A woman named Audra (last name withheld to protect her privacy) came to the microphone and said she has found herself in multiple situations in which some of her friends and associates have made offensive comments pertaining to immigrants. “I’m getting angry and about to shut down the church picnic,” she said in jest, drawing laughter from those who identified with her feelings. She asked “How to use personal leadership to change hearts and minds on this issue.”

Kathleen Ko Chin, presi­dent/­CEO of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, responded with empathy: “You want to be building your emotional fortitude when you’re not at that situation so when you are in that situation you can pull from those reserves.”

It is this kind of emotional build up that’s dealt with in what Kellogg calls “healing circles” during the annual conference. In these private talks, group members speak personally from their hearts about their day-to-day experiences with the issues of race in America, how they are impacting those issues and how those issues are impacting them.

The conference is part of the Kellogg Foundation’s America Healing initiative which provides grants for organizations to address structural bias and facilitate racial healing in communities. Gail Christopher, Kellogg vice president for program strategy, said there is an urgent need to present stories, not just of racial pain, but inspirational stories of racial healing and people working together.

Given the level of racism that continues in America, quantifying the impact of the program after five years will clearly be daunting. But, Christopher is convinced that it is absolutely doable.

“We certainly don’t stop. It really doesn’t end,” she said, She noted that the impact will be measured based on four goals. They are: “How much impact we’ve made” surrounding communications around these issues, both in the media and otherwise; How much capacity has emerged at the community level?; Have we “accelerated the amount of research” that relates to these issues? And the amount of “capacity within the organizations” that work on the changes.

Meanwhile, in its third year, the race healing conference is expanding and growing in topics. Among those discussed this year were affirmative action, gun violence, health care disparities, poverty, economic justice and immigration, an issue that has moved front and center as a new civil and human rights issue.

Obrien, who specialized in race documentaries at CNN, mainly “Black in America” and “Latino in America” outlined the principled questions within the issue: “[This is] an American conversation. Who will be considered as a real citizen? Who gets to be counted?…[Who gets to] stop hiding in the shadows and come into the light of day.”

This article originally published in the May 13, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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