Hoboken 4th Ward Councilman Ruben Ramos Jr. was one of four panelists who convened recently at St. Peter's Prep High School to talk about racial diversity. Panelists said they believed racism and racial divisions were still major problems plaguing society. Dhaval Patel, president of the Multicultural Club at the private high school, opened the 2000 Cultural Diversity Forum Thursday evening by talking about a quilt. With four distinguished panelists in front of him, Patel said that America is much like a quilt, with different colored patches of different sizes sewn together to form a single unit. "What is that patch that holds us together as a society?" Patel asked. "Humanity." Panelists Melissa Holloway, Kabili Tayari, Robert Perry and Ruben Ramos, Jr. discussed the issue of race relations in the Siperstein Library at the school. Holloway sits on the Jersey City council. Tayari serves on Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler's cabinet as the director of the city's economic opportunity office. Dr. Perry is the director of African-American Studies at St. Peter's College. In front of a sparse crowd of approximately 50 students, the panelists all agreed that the quilt Patel spoke of is being shredded, and that many Americans feel that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are distant and unattainable goals. The purpose of the discussion, Patel said, was to assert the fact that problems do exist, and that we, as a people, want to solve those problems. "People need to understand and face the problems," said Patel, who is a student at St. Peter's Prep. Holloway kicked off the discussion by saying that racism is born in the home. Though children are not effected by it at an early age, as evidenced by small children playing together with other races in playgrounds, when they become older they tend to disassociate from other cultures. The councilwoman also said that if the economy were equal, there would be a lot less problems. She cited Jersey City as the "tale of two cities," in that waterfront development has different interests from the poorer communities further inland from the Hudson. Dr. Perry maintained that one of the benefits of colleges is that they are a place where races can come together and interact with each other. "Colleges and universities have served as a catalyst," Perry said. "They are a 'coming together' place." Part of the problem of racism, Perry said, is that people grow up in isolated communities where everyone is one in the same, just like one another. When those children go off to college, they will meet other races for what may be the first time in their lives. "Colleges place them in close proximity to people that they may never have had an opportunity to interact with," Perry said. College cafeterias Sitting beside Dr. Perry, Councilman Ramos backed up the point by telling a story of when he walked into a college cafeteria for the first time. Coming from the racially-mixed Hoboken, Ramos said that he didn't know who to sit with when he saw the blacks sitting with the blacks, the Latin-Americans sitting among themselves, and the whites sitting in their own sections. Ramos continued by saying that until the playing field is leveled and that every race and culture gets the same opportunities extended to them by the system, there will not be any change. "We all want the same thing for our families," Ramos said. Tayari spoke frankly and bluntly, saying that racism is just as powerful today as it ever has been. "Racism is alive and well," he said. "Racism is not dead. It has increased and turned into a covert form of racism." Today, he said, racism keeps minorities out of work and allows developers, for example, to leave out minorities when hiring construction workers and contractors. "The truth hurts," Tayari said. "Racism is not dead. White people don't like to hear that. And there is no 'minority.' There is no skin color called 'minority,' and there is no place called 'minority.'" Putting labels on people such as "disadvantaged people," Tayari said, is also another form of racism. Further, Tayari said that despite the fact that more whites are arrested each year by local police, there are more minorities in jail. Ramos, who was elected to the Hoboken council when he was only 24 years old, said that part of the problem is that minority communities such as those in Jersey City and Hoboken are not always controlled by the people that live there. As an example, he used the fact that his constituents are mostly black and Latino, yet there is a white mayor running the city. Tayari backed that up as being "institutional racism." Additionally, the panelists agreed that part of the racism problem stems from the justice system and the way that it is set up. In covering the criminal justice system in this country, the panelists all brought up the recent rash of police shootings and cases of brutality that have passed through the courts. In New York four cops accused of raining 41 bullets on Amadou Diallo were found innocent of all charges, including manslaughter. Before the trial began, because of fears that the white policemen would not get a fair trial in the predominantly African-American Bronx, it was moved to Albany. "Albany County has never found a cop guilty of anything," Tayari said. "Moving the trial to Albany," Holloway said, "said that no one in the Bronx was able to rule fairly." In Jersey City, a similar case may be brewing, as 15-year old Michael Anglin was killed by a police handgun on Jan. 28. "The Anglin shooting has the potential to be like New York," said Holloway, who has gotten death threats because she did not vote for a federal investigation team to intervene in the case. All of the panelists agreed that there has been a breakdown in the judicial system and that not only African-Americans were getting the short end of the stick. Recently in Jersey City, a large portion of the Arab population took to the steps of City Hall in protest of what was perceived as unfair treatment by the police of a member of their community. "If you have money," Ramos said, "you can win any case. You can buy your acquittal." Dr. Perry said that this sort of unfair treatment has been happening for years. He said that racism was at the root of the internment camps Japanese-Americans were herded into during World War II, and it was at the heart of the treatment of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears and at Wounded Knee. "We're living in a kerosene climate," Perry said. "Drop a match, and anything can happen." In our schools, the panelists said, racism is also rampant. Ramos, who is a teacher in Paterson, said that he sees it when his fellow teachers will dismiss some of the minority students in their classes as being unable to learn. He said that students are not challenged in public schools, where he has to photocopy pages out of textbooks because his state-funded school district does not have enough money to buy one for each of his students. The final segment of the program detailed solving the problem and how people can begin to make this country more racially harmonious. "If we sit back and accept these things," Tayari said, "nothing is going to change."