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New Effort Links Ethnic Caucuses

Leaders of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding said Thursday they couldn’t have picked a better time to launch a Washington D.C. Ethnic Congressional Caucus Office, alluding to Rep. Tom Tancredo’s (R-Colo.) proposal to abolish all race-based caucuses.

“The timing couldn’t have been more perfect,” said Lawrence Kopp, executive director of the foundation.

“The country is changing, and we see this as an extremely insensitive act,” he said of the Tancredo plan. “The one thing ethnic caucuses help us do is to understand how we are both different and the same.”

The nonprofit foundation, created in 1989 to improve black-Jewish relations, established the ethnic caucus office this summer to strengthen relations between the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Jewish Congressional Delegation and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. The foundation held a ceremony Thursday to officially launch the office, which is staffed with two people.

“This move came in response to demographic changes of the U.S.,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the foundation. “It is having an impact on Congress. We’re bringing them together and making them more sensitive to one another’s issues.”

The ceremony came in the wake of Tancredo’s call for an end to race-based caucuses Thursday, when he wrote a letter to House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) formally requesting the change to the Members Congressional Handbook.

“Congress, the source of a great deal of ‘color-blind’ rhetoric, should never institutionalize the image of racial divisiveness,” Tancredo said in a statement. “I find it somewhat hypocritical that this Congress continues to extol the virtues of a color-blind society while officially sanctioning caucuses that are based solely on race.”

The effort prompted Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), chairman of the Asian Pacific American Caucus, to invite Tancredo into the caucus. “I hope he takes us up on our invitation because I know that Mr. Tancredo, and the caucus as a whole, will benefit from his membership,” Wu said in a statement.

Other representatives were not as inviting.

“Tancredo has a very narrow viewpoint of the country. Your being here comes at the best time because of these kinds of issues,” Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), former chairman of the Hispanic caucus, told the foundation. “Diversity is the strength that bonds this great country, and nothing makes that more meaningful than to have interchange.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who belongs to the CBC, agreed: “Why has it taken you so long to come here? Let’s generate a dialogue of peace, harmony and understanding. If we ever needed it, we sure needed it now.”

The foundation, which has done work on Capitol Hill for the past four and a half years before the institutionalization of the office, has completed research reports and surveys on race relation, and convened meetings with ethnic staffers on the Hill. It plans to hold a hearing on race in the future.

“Consider us a ‘rapid response team’ on race relations,” Kopp said. “We will look for policy issues and form ideas to forge stronger coalitions.”

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