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Race: three fresh initiatives

No world ill is more poignantly in need of healing initiatives than the blight of racial discord. When these come along they must be recognized as examples of the tireless efforts for justice and harmony required as the times bring various countries to new stages in the process of living together. Three promising instances are currently in the news in their respective lands:

* Britain. Here economic strains falling unequally on racial groups have heightened problems of adjustment in a population coming relatively late to the growth of racial diversity. But well before this summer's riots a parliamentary committee was at work on a report on "racial disadvantage." Released earlier this month, the report not only criticizes the Home Office for a passive role in the past but offers recommendations for dealing with racial disadvantage that "cannot be expected to disappear by natural causes."

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Parts of the report will sound familiar to americans who have passed this way before. It calls for employers to declare themselves as equal opportunity employers. It calls on banks not to discriminate in making loans. It tries to break the cycle of minorities being unprepared for jobs that do become available. In suggesting the monitoring of minority employment, it raises controversy over "positive discrimination" as opposed to "positive action," which appear to be British equivalents for "reverse discrimination" and "affirmative action" in the US. But these are matters to be grappled with, not ignored.

The pointe is that someone has to do something, recommendations have to be made, before the pros and cons can be thrashed out and decisive action taken.

* South Africa. To most of the world South Africa, with its apartheid system of racial discrimination, remains the bastion of benighted racial policies of the past. Here, unlike the situation in Britain and America, the minority is in control, and injustice toward the majority is a matter of law. So it becomes significant when the minority government seeks to change the law in the direction of justice.

The latter is now happening with the introduction to Parliament of legislation that would radically reform South Africa's labor laws. It stands in heartening contrast with the recent renewed government backing of hardline apartheid.

For example, the previously entrenched legal references to race would be eliminated. Black workers would be given the same union rights as white workers. There would be actual prohibitions on racial discrimination rather than the usual provisions for it.

South Africa, of course, is no exception to the cliche that the proof is in the pudding. But at least somebody is stirring.

* United States. Plenty of controversies remain over the impact of governmental policies and practices, but Americans have the relative luxury of trying to improve race relations beyond the legal battle in every walk of life. A recent step forward was taken by Harvard University.For all its pride in diversity -- and, incidentally, antiapartheid investment policy on firms doing business with South Africa -- Harvard has had some criticism about its own environment from black and other minority students. Now, instead of setting up a "third-world center" like some other American universities, Harvard has opted for a new foundation to "draw on all of Harvard's academic and cultural resources to foster racial understanding."

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A student-faculty committee had studied the third-world centers elsewhere and concluded that such a center at Harvard could be construed as encouraging further separation of the races. The promising alternative includes events at various locations designed to attract and involve both minority and majority students.

We recall a black student from the small-town South who plunged into the mainstream of Harvard activities instead of staying separate. He wryly noted that some black middle-class students were trying to study what it meant to be black -- he already knew. He went on through law school to a good job, spreading racial understanding all the way, as far as we could see.

It's such human resources in addition to everything else that Harvard or any other institution -- in any country -- needs to draw on if racial understanding is going to be more than an academic exercise.

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