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Thursday, May 19, 2011 04:38 am

Race unity still a work in progress

Like other members of the Baha’i faith living in the United States, my heart was deeply touched 20 years ago when the U.S. Baha’i council issued its historic call-to-action entitled “A Vision of Race Unity: America’s Most Challenging Issue.” Today, 20 years and one African American president later, the time seems ripe to review its message, and try to gauge our recent progress in becoming a more tolerant, civil and unified society.

The 1991 race unity statement inspired Baha’is across the country. In Springfield, it led to the creation of an annual Race Unity Rally that seeks to further the common recognition of the oneness of humankind, while promoting substantive human interactions – especially between those of differing ethnic and racial backgrounds.

In 1991, the Springfield Baha’i community developed a plan to widely distribute this historic document and its blueprint for building empathy and unity. Local Baha’is met with school administrators, government officials, and editorial-board members. Most were receptive to it; Illinois Times saw fit to include the entire 3,100-word statement in one of its editions.

Two decades have passed, and progress toward tolerance has been significant by some measures, not so by others. Twenty years ago, very few would have predicted an African American being elected to the White House in their lifetime. This milestone is something we should all be proud of. Barack Obama’s landmark election, however, seems to have spawned a rise in political sniping and nasty partisan attacks – many either baseless or unrelated to key issues of the day.

In Springfield’s recent history, the acknowledgment by former Mayor Karen Hasara of racism in our police department was an act of political courage; the citywide “study circles” racial dialogue program she launched allowed many to consider an issue that is often ignored or glossed over because of its inherent volatility. Mayor Mike Houston has talked at length of his desire to heal the racial divide that continues to manifest itself in events such as the CWLP noose incident. Clearly, the record over the last two decades is mixed.
The following from the Baha’i race unity statement seems as appropriate today as it did 20 years ago, and can serve as a benchmark for measuring future progress:

 “Our appeal (for racial unity and justice) is addressed primarily to the individual American because the transformation of a whole nation ultimately depends on the initiative and change of character of the individuals who compose it. No great idea or plan of action…can hope to succeed if the individual neglects to respond in his or her own way as personal circumstances and opportunities permit.”

Mike Lang lives in Sherman. He serves on the Race Unity Rally committee, which will host the 14th annual Race Unity Rally at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 5, in the State Capitol rotunda.
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