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Healing racial rifts: What unifies us?

In the midst of a public forum on race at the University of Mississippi last year, a young white man rose to proclaim his right to fly the Confederate flag at university football games. When he concluded, two young women - one black and one white, both students - rose to explain to the 800 people in the integrated audience why flying that flag caused them both pain. As a result of this dialogue, the young man agreed to stop flying the Confederate flag at football games.

The university will soon announce the formation of an Institute for Racial Reconciliation and Civic Renewal on campus.

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To those who dismiss the value of talk in racial healing or believe we have done enough talking, we offer this as evidence that talking about race can be the first step toward racial healing. In the past, too much of our talk has been at each other rather than with each other. Such talk polarizes and paralyzes us. When we talk with each other, as these three young people did, we come to better understand each other's perspectives, and we are able to find common ground and the will to act.

We saw similar evidence wherever we traveled last year for the President's Initiative on Race. When people recognized and acknowledged divisions, these divisions began to heal.

It is from this context that the advisory board of the President's Initiative on Race recommended creation of a President's Council for One America. Such a council would insure that the momentum generated by the president's leadership will touch a growing number of Americans in our quest to achieve racial healing and build one America. We urge the president to adopt this cornerstone recommendation.

The initiative has laid important groundwork for continuing the vital task of racial reconciliation. Recently, the president took a key step by creating a White House Office for One America. But it won't be enough to reach those who remain unaware of the need for racial healing.

In his report to the nation on race, due this spring, the president will further illuminate this need and will lay out a road map for becoming one America. It will chart a course for each sector of society - business, labor, religion, etc. - as we seek to flourish in the world's first truly multiracial democracy.

A president's council will help focus the entire nation's attention on this road map.

Without the president's visible, unrelenting leadership, our distinct experiences will continue to divide us along racial lines. Instead of one America, we will be many Americans suspicious of and separated from one another.

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As we learned in Mississippi, a president's council, with prominent, nongovernmental presidential appointees, can be a vehicle both for guiding us when we face difficult choices and inspiring us to reach beyond existing influences in our lives to embrace a new vision of America. Much as the President's Council on Physical Fitness did years ago, a President's Council for One America can keep us focused on our ultimate destination - a stronger, more united America where we respect everyone's unique attributes while celebrating our common values and aspirations.

The council would lead a sustained public awareness campaign with three key goals: raise public awareness of the common values we share; highlight racial inequities and the need to eliminate them; and spark racial healing activities in all sectors of society.

Led by someone of a stature comparable to that of John Hope Franklin, who chaired our advisory board, the council would have the credibility to engage people who otherwise might dismiss the significance of our racial divisions, the independence to make politically difficult recommendations, and the stature to resist abolition by a future administration.

The president has challenged us to "lift the heavy burden of race" from our shoulders and build Oone America. No existing agency or White House office has the credibility and independence to lead us to this destination.

A Council for One America will keep us focused on the challenge of racial reconciliation, and help us seize the moment offered by those three daring students at the University of Mississippi.

* William Winter, an attorney in Jackson, Miss., is the former governor of Mississippi and was a member of the President's Initiative on Race advisory board. Michael Wenger, a consultant with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C., was the deputy director for outreach and program development for the President's Initiative on Race.

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