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Race Relations
Race Relations Report Race Forum in Fairfax Finally Hits a Nerve

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 18, 1997; Page A01

For the first two hours, yesterday's meeting of the President's Advisory Board on Race progressed much as its previous sessions had -- a polite and harmonious discussion by a pre-selected panel talking about how diversity had enriched their lives.

Then a fellow named Robert Hoy grabbed a microphone and suddenly, for the first time since President Clinton launched his national conversation on race relations six months ago, the dialogue turned raw. "There's no one up there that's talking about the white people!" Hoy shouted. "We don't want to be a minority in our own country!"

Within moments, a police officer escorted Hoy out of the building because he was disrupting the event. But it did not end there. Following him out the door were dozens of audience members and reporters, and what ensued on the sidewalk outside Fairfax County's Annandale High School was the sort of vigorous back-and-forth about race that critics say has been missing from Clinton's initiative.

Hoy, a photographer from Vienna with ties to David Duke, complained that whites are losing "our homeland" because they are quickly being outnumbered by other racial groups. "We're going to be a minority soon!" he said in trying to explain his concern to a group of black men. "I'm already a minority," countered Raymond A. Winbush, an African American who directs the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University in Nashville.

Even as the discussion unfolded, other white bystanders jumped in to make clear that Hoy did not reflect their views or their community. "I'm a white person at Annandale High School!" shouted Eileen Kugler, a former PTA president. "Please do not make this the forum. . . . This is not representative!"

If nothing else, the unscripted scene at Annandale High laid bare the sorts of passions Clinton figured might be unloosed when he asked Americans last June to explore race relations. "Emotions may be rubbed raw," he predicted at the time, and they certainly were in Fairfax yesterday.

"It points out what a complicated issue race relations is," said Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D), who was present. "It underscores the whole reason for why you have this discussion."

It also touched a nerve with those who have been disappointed with Clinton's initiative. Before his ejection, Hoy told the race board that its discussion was a monologue and that "there should be sparks flying" -- an assessment shared by several African Americans present who otherwise disagreed vehemently with Hoy's views.

"He's absolutely right," Jim Martin, co-director of the Washington office of the Congress of Racial Equality, said afterward. "Sparks should fly because race is the issue that really divides America. . . . Unless we can really deal with this man, we're never going to solve it."

Clinton personally directed his race advisers to take a field trip to Fairfax, seeing it as a microcosm for the nation because of its dramatic demographic changes in recent years. Students in Fairfax schools speak 100 native languages and hail from 180 foreign countries, making for an eclectic mix in a once predominantly white middle-class county.

What the president was hoping to discover was how such a blend of people get along -- or don't -- and how the Fairfax experience could be translated to the nation at large. To find out, his race board focused on two inside-the-Beltway schools on the front line of change, Annandale High and Bailey's Elementary, where white students are now in the minority.

Once the settings for racially charged disputes over boundaries and teenage violence, both schools in recent years have evolved into what parents and officials consider models of interracial camaraderie. Yet they still labor with perceptions they say do not square with reality.

"We can't get out from under the image that diversity isn't good," said Kugler, whose son, Alex, was among the panelists during yesterday's meeting and was frustrated that Hoy's outburst might taint the school's success story. "It's the parents who grow up in the lily-white neighborhoods that are afraid of what they're going to find. . . . I can't tell you what a wonderful place this is."

That seemed to be the race board's conclusion too, as officials praised efforts in both schools to integrate children from around the world. A 12-page study of Bailey's commissioned by the board concluded the school had made itself into "an educational, social and cultural haven for students from all backgrounds."

During the morning session, a panel of students, parents and educators talked about their experiences and offered some lessons -- reach out to parents, keep expectations high for everyone, find ways to involve different cultures in everyday experiences such as school dances.

"The main problem is fear," said Fatema Kohistani, a senior at Annandale. "There are a lot of people who are scared. They don't know how to step up."

Rodney Williams, an African American father of a student at nearby Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, said parents must make sure teachers hold their children to the same standards as white students, recalling that a teacher told him his son was a "good student" even though he had gotten a C. "There are times parents must get off their butts and show up," he said.

If Hoy wanted sparks, he should have stuck around for the afternoon session, which produced a robust debate among national experts after former education secretary William J. Bennett said "a litany of speeches is not a dialogue." Citing the District, Bennett said bad urban schools were more a result of mismanagement and weak families than race or lack of funding.

The discussion turned to charter schools, the quasi-independent taxpayer-funded academies that advocates favor to promote educational choice but critics complain could resegregate education. Lisa Graham Keegan, superintendent of Arizona public schools, said charter schools have been a big success for underprivileged children in her state. "It's a simple solution," she said. "We make it complicated."

"I think it is a simple-minded solution," retorted Gary Orfield, a Harvard University education professor who says schools already are resegregating because of residential trends.

"That," shot back Keegan, "is extremely patronizing and untrue."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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