Sanford Cloud Jr. seemed to have radical ambitions.
"Our focus honors Dr. King's effort just before his death to assemble the ‘Poor Peoples' March' for economic justice," the president and CEO of the National Conference for Community and Justice said. "We must start with a dialogue that brings to light the role of racism in economics, and move to actions, policies and practices that will actualize real opportunity for all."
The 4th National Conversation on Race, Ethnicity and Culture, organized by NCCJ and sponsored by Aetna, might have been that dialogue if more community activists were invited. Instead the "conversation" broadcast around the country on Jan. 15 was an amalgam of municipal officials and corporate middleweights bragging about their successes and ignoring questions about their failures. Mayor Glenda Hood was an invited speaker.
"Hartford is undergoing something called the ‘Millennium Committee,' which is trying to improve the downtown area and bring more jobs to the city," explained Fred Laberge, a vice president of Hartford-based Aetna, when asked what qualities Orlando and Hood possess to make them fit the forum. "We're looking to connect with cities that have similar problems or that have gone through similar kinds of redevelopment."
Millennium committee. Parramore 2000. The pattern is the same everywhere: People in power, most of them white, decide to "redevelop" the slums. Gleaming buildings ensue as poor people are evicted. A process is created to manage the political fallout. That's called a "dialogue."
The "conversation," joined by telephone to the Orange County Educational Leadership Center from which Hood and Greater Orlando Aviation Authority Chairman William Miller participated, was as a microcosm of the discussion on race in America. It is a discussion in which the participants speak past one another, where agreement is easy because action isn't required. It is a dialogue in which reality is shrouded by facile assumptions, which in turn are buried beneath empty politesse.
The reality: In America, race is class, because the economic system is biased against African-Americans. The facile assumption: The poor have only themselves to blame. The politesse: Yes, we (whites) must do more to provide "economic opportunity" to blacks. But, oh, affirmative action is controversial and difficult to implement! Now let's talk about ghetto pathology.
In 1997 African-Americans were three times more likely to live in poverty than whites, according to Census figures. Four times as many blacks and three times as many Hispanics live in Census-defined "poverty areas" as live outside them. Banks and insurance companies avoid these areas, leaving residents to rely on car title loan sharks whose interest rates exceed 240 percent annually.
During the conversation, no one noted that every study ever done of the Community Reinvestment Act -- the law that requires banks to lend in their local communities -- found evidence of racial discrimination. No one uttered the word "redlining," although Aetna was accused of it, last year by Hartford Mayor Mike Peters and in 1997 by the National Fair Housing Alliance. No one mentioned that high on this year's Republican political agenda is the abolishment of the CRA.
The conversation instead revolved around "entrepreneurship" and "emerging markets."
"Yes, there's a terrific marketing opportunity," said Tom McInerney, a senior VP of Aetna. "Look beneath the overall growth and you see women, the minorities ... and they have not traditionally been served."
When forum participant Bong Hwan Kim, who directs Los Angeles's Multicultural Collaborative, linked minority over-representation in prisons to lack of operating capital for minority business owners, the forum's white participants changed the subject.
"Thirty percent of our construction workers will be of color building our convention center," Millennium Project chief (and Pratt & Whitney CEO) Karl Krapek bragged in response to Kim. "But many of them are not prepared for the training . . . some cannot read and write."
A question about Orlando International Airport's economic opportunity program for local minorities illustrated best the forum's surreal nature.
"We can't be economically polarized," Miller replied. "We cannot afford that kind of image to be broadcast on CNN to folks in Europe, Latin America and Africa, and expect people to come here."
The goal is not race relations, but public relations.
Cloud, who moderated the conversation, says such criticism is unfair. "I think there were some cross-cutting themes that were in fact articulated," he says. Education was discussed, and Cloud himself challenged the panelists on St. Louis's 2004 project, in which black community leaders have been forceful in their demands from the white power structure.
Hood, to her credit, did not brag about Orlando's racial record, acknowledging for example that the Orlando Arena (and the Educational Leadership Center) "removed a lot of houses" amid the "promise of jobs `for African Americans` that did not exactly pan out."
As the Hartford participants signed off, Hood smiled. "I always get ideas when I listen to these conversations," she said. "Maybe we can have a continuing conversation."