Hundreds of people gathered for President Clinton's Initiative on Race Thursday, a roundtable discussion of Utah community race issues, but there was little representation from Utah's leading institutions.
Participants talked about equity in the justice system, poor health care, discrimination and challenges along the road to making positive change.In the end, one of the most distressing topics of Thursday's conversation was the curious absence of key players. Representatives from the governor's office, the attorney general's office, local police departments and the department of corrections and city leaders were notably missing, much to the dismay of panelists and participants.
"Why the hell aren't these people here?" asked Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Zimmerman. Zimmerman is also head of the Utah Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Legal System.
The only panelist representing a mainstream Utah institution was Robert K. Dellenbach, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Several panelists said before the conversation that the support of the LDS Church would be vital in promoting racial equity in Utah's communities.
For any meaningful change to occur, Zimmerman said all people - including the majority white population, who were sparse in attendance at the conversation - need to sit down with one another and work toward a more racially accepting society.
Those discussions might not always be comfortable or easy, but Zimmerman said people need to get over it.
"We all just need to shut up and listen to each other," he said.
Time and again, participants echoed the importance of grassroots efforts in building more unified communities.
Moderator William E. Leftwich III, who represented the Clinton Administration, said achieving a tolerant society will be up to concerned individuals such as those in attendance at the discussion.
"This is something we have to work hard for and take into our own hands," he said. "It's not just going to fall out of the sky."
The conversation wasn't without its angry moments, though, as person after person gave accounts of racial discrimination and abuse.
One panelist said she worked with a low-income woman who was pulled over by a police officer for no apparent reason except for the run-down car she was driving. When the officer discovered she had no automobile insurance, he immediately impounded the car. The woman walked home.
Another participant who worked as a volunteer in the department of juvenile corrections said he saw the frustrations of Spanish-speaking youths (and their parents) who couldn't understand what the guards said to them. Because the youths couldn't understand the opportunities that were available to them to learn job skills or increase their education, they often were less prepared to re-enter society.
Others went so far as to say the state of race relations is regressing back to the overt prejudices of the 1960s. Audience members applauded the perception.
In spite of the flare-ups, however, participants agreed to stay committed to their cause, to keep voicing their concerns and ideas for change.
They hope someone is listening.