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But despite such efforts to bring people together,

By Thomas J. Sheeran Associated Press Published: November 30, 1997 12:00 AM

But despite such efforts to bring people together, residents concede Akron is not a perfect model of race relations. Mixing between whites and blacks is somewhat limited and people speak of lingering stereotypes.

What community leaders will say for their industrial city of 220,000 is that it is at least confronting the problem of racial tension.

"We can work together," said Fannie Brown, executive director of Coming Together, the backbone of Akron's anti-racism effort. "Hearts are changed one at a time."

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Clinton comes to the University of Akron on Wednesday to lead a 90-minute town hall meeting on young people's attitudes toward race.

The hope is to inject some energy into what has been a mostly dormant public discussion of racial issues that Clinton began in June.

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Why Akron?

In part, the city was chosen for its Midwestern values and programs to promote racial harmony. The blue collar town, where the rubber industry served as a draw for Southern blacks and eastern European whites, is 73 percent white and 24.5 percent black.

It's also friendly political turf. Sixty percent of the voters in this union stronghold went for Clinton in 1996.

The White House also was impressed by Coming Together, which gets more than 5,000 people involved each year in activities that promote tolerance.

"It's not so much touchy-feely" as encouraging contact and understanding among people of different backgrounds, Brown said. People from different backgrounds spend time together at daylong workshops, joint church dinners and other events.

Members of the black Mount Zion Baptist Church and the suburban white Bath United Church of Christ have a joint garden club, have attended gospel music festivals together and have occasional potluck dinners.

"I've been able to deal with my racist attitudes _ we all have racist attitudes, whether we're black or white," said Mount Zion Pastor Luther Charles Cooper, 57, who grew up in segregated Columbus, Miss.

"I left (Mississippi) when I was in high school and came to Akron and I had to deal with a lot of preconceptions and misunderstandings, hatred, hostility born in me because of when I was discriminated against," he said.

Coming Together grew out of a yearlong series of articles the Akron Beacon Journal produced on race.

The paper won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1994 for its coverage of local racial attitudes and its attempts to improve communication in the community. The paper's stories and polling found evidence of lingering racism.

The series culminated in a special section listing more than 22,000 residents and about 140 community groups who pledged to work to improve race relations. The paper's continuing interest in the issue has created a foundation for keeping race relations before the public, Brown said.

Bob Paynter, who directed the newspaper's series, said the upcoming meeting gave the newspaper the opportunity to revisit the race issue, including updated public opinion surveys on racism.

"We're finding a lot of circumstances have, in fact, changed for some people and a lot hasn't, so it's a mixed bag," he said. "There's still plenty of racist attitudes that black people encounter fairly regularly and, on the other hand, there have been some people who said they experienced some personal change."

The question of whether race relations have improved in Akron is hard to quantify. Statistics offer a mixed picture.

For example, there were 30 hate crimes in Akron in 1994 and 25 through mid-September of this year.

The 32,288-student public school system has gone from 57.4 percent white in 1992 to 50.5 percent white this year. An open-enrollment policy was halted in 1995 because of whites transferring to suburban schools.

Other factors may have helped the city's race climate, such as an improving local economy.

Tammy Brown, 31, a black single mother enrolled in a welfare-to-work program, doesn't consider racism a problem.

"I never really experienced it," she said.

But Gilbert Hyde, 37, a white telemarketer who lives in a racially mixed neighborhood, said he sees little interaction between the races.

"For as much as desegregation is tried, everybody segregates on their own," he said.

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