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Institute offers hope of a cure for racism

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002

You don't think about it while you drive around Citrus County, down oak-shaded lanes in Old Homosassa and among neatly trimmed lawns in Beverly Hills.

Nobody seems to have the time or the inclination for hatred: There are too many fish to catch, too many rounds of golf to be played, too many manatees to be seen.

But, as members of the Institute for Healing Racism point out, the seeds of racism are everywhere and even, however deeply, within most of us.

And so this very low key, rational, education-oriented group was formed 10 years ago to help individuals deal with their own racial perceptions and to work toward educating the surrounding community.

The local institute came to my attention recently when Madge Palmer, its secretary, wrote a letter to the editor pointing out that the painting of racist graffiti in Homosassa and efforts by the Ku Klux Klan to organize in Beverly Hills are evidence of the need for what she called a "reaffirmation of a spiritual unity in Citrus County."

I met with Palmer and Fred Matthews at Palmer's comfortable Duval Island home to learn about the group.

Palmer, described in one book about the institute as one of a "group of elderly women" who started the local group, sometimes jokingly refers to herself and the others as a "group of little old ladies."

Matthews is a ramrod-straight African-American, Republican and retired employee of the federal prison system. He says the group is fairly well mixed along racial and gender lines, although he points out that the group has no Asian members and would welcome some.

"We're a small group," Palmer said. "We sort of go back and forth between 10 and 20 members, depending on the season."

Institutes for Healing Racism have sprung up all over the country in the wake of personal appearances by Nathan Rutstein, author of Healing Racism in America, who appeared several years ago in Citrus County. The institutes have their roots in the Baha'i faith but are nondenominational.

"We do acknowledge at the beginning of our meetings that we owe a debt to the Baha'is," said Matthews, but there is no discussion of religion after that. "I don't even know what religion most of the members are."

Recognizing racism as a "social and spiritual disease" that represents "the most powerful and persistent obstacle to the attainment of a just and peaceful society," the organizations work toward realizing what they call the "oneness of humanity."

It sometimes can be an uphill struggle.

Local governments and educational institutions are not always receptive to the institute's offers to help and, despite denials to the contrary, racial problems in Citrus County surface fairly frequently. Not long ago there was racial unrest between black residents and police officers, and a ruckus arose over certain license tags, the display of hangman's nooses and some window decals on cars and pickup trucks parked at Citrus High School.

The institute responds quietly and calmly, but it does respond, as it did with Palmer's letter about Homosassa graffiti, and with a letter from Matthews a couple of years ago questioning a reorganization of the school system and its perceived impact on the minority community.

The institute also sponsored two Color Me Human festivals in the county, along with the Interfaith Council of Citrus County, Temple Beth Sholom, Unity of Citrus County, the American Association of University Women and Baha'i.

It was interesting to note that when the Homosassa graffiti incident occurred there were these obvious responses:

Alex Cifuentes, 29, of Spring Hill, was so offended that he climbed onto the roof of the building where the graffiti had been painted and covered it up.

Two teenagers were arrested and charged with painting it.

Two groups voiced disapproval in our letters column: the Interfaith Council and the Institute for Healing Racism.

Perhaps the most important thing you can say about the group is that it exists.

More information

Write Madge Palmer at PO Box 916, Floral City, 34436.

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