Leaders Lagging Behind Positive Trends

The sordid history of hate crimes took an unusual twist last month. An alleged hate crime at Claremont McKenna College, which was the focus of widespread media attention, appears to have been committed by the ostensible “victim.” But the act, or nonact, is not what’s worthy of attention several weeks later, rather, it’s the community’s response.

Even before there was a full investigation of the facts, the administration at Claremont didn’t equivocate or seek to evade or ignore the issues of racism and anti-Semitism. It encouraged discussions of tough and timely issues revolving around race and ethnicity. It canceled classes and convened a colloquium on the subject of hate and bigotry, despite the accusations and criticisms that rained down on it.

The reality today is that in many circles, there is an ethos that views allegations of racism/bigotry so seriously that extraordinary steps are taken, almost unquestioningly, in response to even the hint of hate.

Fortunately, there are fewer and fewer incidents to respond to. A recently released national report on anti-Semitic hate “incidents” found that the number in California declined by nearly 20 percent last year, from 223 in 2002 to 180 (with more than 60 percent of those incidents being “harassments,” such as verbal threats and insults).

When serious incidents do arise, even outside the environment of the academy, where the responses can be molded and directed, communities have been more revealing of where society has come than the outrages themselves.

In Terre Haute, Ind., in the aftermath of what has been described as the worst anti-Semitic incident last year in the United States — a Holocaust memorial museum was torched) — the general community rallied behind the museum and raised $230,000 to help rebuild it.

Terre Haute is not an aberration. A just-released Gallup Poll on race relations found that a majority of Americans prefer to live in mixed neighborhoods. The poll didn’t find that respondents “tolerated” or passively “accepted” integrated neighborhoods, but rather, they preferred them.

The poll also found that one of the oldest taboos in race relations is diminishing. An overwhelming majority of blacks, whites and Latinos would “not object to a child or grandchild marrying someone of a different race.”

Recently, a study of 500 adults who had graduated from mandatorily desegregated high schools in 1980 was released. The study concluded that for the vast majority of these graduates, nearly a quarter- century after they left high school, that encounter with diversity remained “one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. The best — and sometimes the only — opportunity to meet and interact regularly with people of different backgrounds … [many of those studied] have struggled to maintain some degree of diversity in their lives and say that in their hearts, they are open to such diversity when the opportunity presents itself.”

The atmosphere of tolerance is even more apparent in Los Angeles, the most diverse of cities. A recently released Public Policy Institute of California Poll found that 80 percent of Angelenos are satisfied with the community in which they live, compared to 69 percent a decade ago, and 45 percent think we are on the right track, as compared to 24 percent in 1994.

Gallup and other polls of the past few weeks reveal equally encouraging news vis-a-vis attitudes toward gays and lesbians, among the primary victims of the most virulent hate crimes in recent years. The polls found that the level of sympathy for gays and lesbians had increased enormously since the mid-’80s — the transformation described in each poll was characterized as “huge” and “enormous” — hardly the usual language of poll analysts.

And yet, despite this news, few are the leaders who seek to tap into this reservoir of good intentions and build community through it.

Too many of our leaders focus instead on the acts of the aberrant sociopaths who commit hate crimes or espouse bigotry. Their misdeeds are virtually impossible to prevent, their sociopathy often deeply embedded. Invariably, their acts set the backdrop for how our leadership responds to minority communities, to the community generally as victims, rather than as full and equal partners to be called upon to make this mosaic of different peoples work.

The message from the grass-roots is manifestly a positive one. On May 2, more than 3,500 volunteers from all parts of Los Angeles participated in Big Sunday (see story page 25), working at 145 different sites across L.A., striving for a common goal to simply do good. Among the co-sponsors were Temple Israel of Hollywood, the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, St. James Episcopal Church, Omar Ibn Khattab Foundation, the Daughters of the American Revolution and more than 100 other schools, synagogues and churches.

In “The King and I,” Anna sings about the reality of teaching, “That if you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught.”

Similarly for the leaders of L.A., they ought to take a page from the thousands of Angelenos who want to engage in the city and give back to a place they think is “on the right track.”

Perhaps they will sing, “If you become a leader, by your constituents you’ll be led.”

David A. Lehrer and Joe R. Hicks are the president and vice president, respectively, of Community Advocates, a human relations organization in Los Angeles chaired by former Mayor Richard Riordan.