CONFRONTING GROUP DIFFERENCES AND COMMONALITIES IN A DIVERSE SOCIETY


CONFLICT RESEARCH CONSORTIUM

Working Paper 94-10 February 1994(1)

By Silke Hansen

Community Relations Service, U.S. Department of Justice


(1) This paper is an edited transcript of a talk given by Silke Hansen for the Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Project on November 6, 1993. Funding for this Project was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the University of Colorado. All ideas presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Consortium, the University, or Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309- 0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail: crc@cubldr.colorado.edu.


© 1994. Conflict Resolution Consortium. Do not reprint without permission.


I work with the Community Relations Service section of the Justice Department, which was created under Title X of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to assist in helping communities resolve disputes, differences, and disagreements based on race, color and national origin by providing conflict resolution services such as: conciliation, mediation, technical assistance, and training. There are no fees for our services.

I have been with the agency about 21 years and have spent those years dealing with racial conflicts in communities. I spent about five months in Los Angeles last year and have gone back there a number of times since, anticipating the verdict of the second trial of the police officers and the verdict of the defendants in the Denny trial. Quite a bit of what I am talking about will refer to the this particular conflict, but I will refer to other conflicts as well.

The first question we were asked when thinking about this panel presentation was: "Do diverse groups have some things in common that can be used to hold the larger community together and limit destructive confrontations?" The answer is, "Yes. Of course they do." But not all of these things are positive.

Sometimes those of us who are working in mediation and conflict resolution forget that there are also some negative factors that we have in common. Certain factors do not promote reconciliation, do not promote harmony, but are things which we have in common with various groups--not just minority groups. For instance, there is a sense of competition among various victim groups looking for redress and resources. Inevitably, as I get to know a certain segment of any minority community better and a level of trust develops, I begin to hear that this particular minority community isn't as well off as all the others. If I am in a black community, I hear how the other minority communities are "just riding on our coat tails." If I am in the Indian community I hear about how they are the only ones who are ignored, and "that all the other communities get the resources." If I am in an Hispanic community, I hear, "Blacks know how to do this. If we knew, then we would get the same access."

Many people think immediately of African Americans when they think of minorities, to the exclusion of other groups. There is a constant competition over which is the most needy minority community. It appears that now there is always competition among minority communities, each of which is vying for a very limited piece of the pie. Fifteen or twenty years ago, there was the realization that "we are in this together and we really need to collaborate because of the system, or the man, or downtown, who it is we need to influence." I don't see much of that today. This needs to be recognized and we need to get out of the competitive frame of mind and help communities do likewise. I am reminded of what Tommy Smothers says in one of the Smothers's Brother's routine, "Mom always liked you better."

In Los Angeles I had my first experience working extensively with the Korean community and this competitive attitude was very true there. There always seems to be the fear of "are they going to get more than we are and why?"

The same prejudices, the same reasons for discrimination that occur in the white community, the power community, the establishment, the system, the controllers . . . whatever word you want to use, to a large extent, also exist within minority communities that we try to get to work together. For instance, I was asked, "Is it true that the Koreans get $5000 when they first come here? Is that why they are successful in their businesses?" The answer is, "No." But this demonstrates the sentiment that there must be good reason why someone else is more successful and then that there must be good reason why someone else is more successful and that there must be someone to blame. The need to blame really gets in the way of resolving the conflicts that exist. So does the desire for control.

Part of what we need to do as we look at mediating community conflicts, multiethnic conflicts, is to help people to understand that collaborating on problem solving does not mean that they are giving up control. Opening options, giving others input, and listening to others does not mean less control over what happens. It just means more options on which to base decisions. There is the view that we "are all one, big beautiful world and we ought to get along." I don't disagree with that. But we also need to look at some of the existing factors that nonetheless get in the way of promoting that idea.

The next question panelists were asked to consider was: "If there are commonalities, how can they be fostered?" I increasingly believe that much of this work needs to take place on a relatively small scale, throughout all parts of the country. I am not suggesting that the kinds of debate and national programs or legislation which promote better economic conditions in minority communities are not important. All of that is important. All of that is important. But, in fact, if these measures are going to make any difference, a lot of the actual bridges that we are trying to build--the collaboration that we are talking about--needs to take place on many levels. Business people from various communities can collaborate on developing business programs; educators can work together on better educational programs. People can collaborate on common issues, but the goal is to come up with a better business product, a better education program, a better transportation system, rather than cultural understanding per se. People are becoming impatient with programs which look as if they are trying to make them feel differently about someone else, rather than trying to make necessary changes. We need to show people right from the beginning that we are trying to achieve benefits from conflict resolution other than feeling better about themselves.

Another thing that we need to do is to examine how we choose the leaders within the community. I remember many years ago, when we still had the Tehran occupation--the American embassy in Iran was being held hostage--Salinger was on a program discussing the negotiations that were taking place. I remember thinking at that point, as I looked at how the mediation took place, that one of the mistakes he made was misdefining who the leaders were. When we are seeking community leaders to work with, we have a real tendency to select those with whom we are familiar, those people to whom we can most easily get access. We tend not to single out or try to work with the people who, in fact, have the leadership role in the community, who have influence on the community where they are working or living. The community should define their leaders, not the intermediaries. Frequently, the most accessible people are the clergy. I am not saying that many clergy out there are not doing wonderful things, and may play important roles in the community. However, some do not provide much community leadership. If the only reason we are picking them is because they are accessible and because we can't get anybody else, then what are we really doing? At a minimum, if we can't get to the real leaders, the people who folks are listening to, then we need to find out who can, and use that channel, rather than creating our own pseudo-leaders based on who is most accessible for us or to whom we can talk to most easily. Just because we can talk to someone and can invite them to the meeting doesn't make them leaders. It doesn't work that way. Frequently this tact creates more resentment and does not solve any problems.

The third question for panelists to consider was: "Can fostering commonalities be done while simultaneously building intergroup understanding and strengthening each group's sense of self-worth and empowerment?" You can't do one without the other. In addition to all the social and economic factors that get in the way of reconciliation and collaboration among various minority groups, the minority group's self-image is a major factor. Unless people feel confidence in who they are and what they are able to do, they are not going to feel secure meeting with someone else who might broaden their options on what might need to be done. As we look at the increase in white hate crimes and at what some of the leadership for those people say, I believe that the economic situation plays a big role in motivating those crimes. But if we look at the leadership and who they are, the greatest virtue that they have is that they are white. I am more and more convinced that one reason they are as vehement about their racism is because their whiteness is the only thing they have going for them--or so they think. If, in fact, they valued who they were, they would not feel as threatened by others, because they would feel that they are also worth something.

I really believe that an important part of facilitating any mediation process, any bridge-building process in the community, is to help empower each of those communities to feel self-worth, and to recognize the contributions that they can bring to any given situation. It can be very persuasive to go to someone and say, "We need you because this is what you can contribute." Feeling needed is valuable and knowing "my contribution is going to make a difference" is a prerequisite for bringing anyone together. If we don't have that, then participants' collaboration and bridge-building efforts are constantly going to be premised on "What am I going to loose? I don't want to give up too much," rather than on, "What can I contribute to make this happen?"