Tampa Bay residents gather in Clearwater to discuss race in the 21st century

01/17/11 Zack Baddorf
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In the run-up to Martin Luther King Day, the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater hosted a workshop and discussion on race in the 21st century. About 25 participants came together over the weekend for several hours of discussions.

Eliseo Santana, Jr., is Puerto Rican. He says he changes the way he conducts himself with people of other races so that he can succeed. Yet, people still look at him differently.

“When I walk into a room in a professional setting, too often my assistants, they happen to be white, tall, male, and everybody kind of migrates to my assistants and they start talking to them as if they were the persons of authority. It’s interesting because when a decision has to be made on something, they automatically say, ‘Well, you’re going to have to ask Mr. Santana,’ and they point to me and then it sort of changes the dimensions of things.”

Santana says people self segregate in America.

“It’s not by law, it’s by choices. It’s kind of strange because the newest generation is interracially mingling with each other and their parents are having a hard time going from their background to the current reality.”

Santana attended the discussions on race this weekend with the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater.

The congregation’s senior minister, Abhi Janamanchi, said the talks were designed to lead to a deeper understanding and recognition of the diversity that exists in the U.S. He said race relations have improved…

“But I also see that race continues to be an issue that is yet to be dealt with or sorted out in a meaningful constructive way. I do not see us engaging intentionally.”

So Janamanchi’s congregation invited Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson, the minister for Racial Justice with the United Church of Christ, to facilitate a discussion over the weekend.

Like Santana, Thompson has similar stories of how people judge her based on how she looks.

“So I get folks who say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so articulate,’ so I’m thinking what are your expectations? What do you think I’m supposed to sound like? Or I’ve had occasion where I’ve spoken to people on the phone and I’ve showed up and they do the double take because they’re expecting someone who looks different because of my voice.”

Thompson says progress has been made.

“But the more things have changed, maybe the more they’ve stayed the same, in the sense that there’s still institutional racism, there’s still need for policy changes, and I think what’s even more tragic is that there’s such a breadth and depth to racial injustice that there’s an interweaving between race and poverty for example.”

The minister says people can fight racial injustice by engaging with law makers to make policy changes. She says people should also examine their own reactions and behaviors around people of other races. Martin Luther King Day is an opportunity for reflection.

“Dr King’s work is not finished.”

Again, Karen Thompson.

“I think the movement for justice, racial justice, economic justice, across the board, is across the board is one that’s ongoing and it’s from generation to generation. And I think it’s for each one of us to pick up the mantle and to say, how can I be engaged in this work? And what do the words of Dr. King mean to me today?’ I think there’s a place for each one of us to reflect and find our place in that and think about how we can embrace the spirit of Dr. King in continuing the work for racial equality.”

On this day to remember Martin Luther King, Eliseo Santana has advice for people, too.

“Take the time to talk to people and see what’s inside, who they are, value them or discard them if they’re not good people. But if they’re good people, be with them.”

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