A popular workshop in the early 1970s regularly brought members of Los Angeles' rainbow tribes to a hotel meeting room for a weekend of 12-hour days of racial confrontation.
About halfway through, something bordering on the miraculous inevitably occurred. After filling the air with hours of nonstop epithets, accusations, defenses, outrage and tears, the acrimony dissolved in near-uncontrollable laughter.
The absurdity of their preoccupation suddenly burst through, bypassing intellect, prejudice and custom in a direct revelation comparable to Zen satori.
Now Pasadena public-radio station KPCC-FM (89.3) has mounted "Shades of L.A.," its own gathering of the tribes, in a new, nine-part series of live weekly broadcasts aimed at generating "honest conversations, hopefully passionate but civil," in the words of host Larry Mantle.
The series, which airs from 5-7 p.m. on Wednesdays and is rebroadcast at midnight, combines a live studio audience, expert commentators and call-ins in a town meeting looking at different aspects of pluralism.
Mantle told the first show's listeners last week that KPCC staffers saw the program as important when they first proposed it for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. "Little did we know that the Simpson verdict would make these discussions all the more imperative," he said.
The initial broadcast was decidedly more civil than passionate, and civility is a welcome respite from the vitriol flowing in the aftermath of O.J. Simpson's acquittal.
Studio guests--a cross-section of ordinary Angelenos, Mantle called them--told familiar tales, no less inspiring for all their familiarity, of immigrant dreams, overcoming obstacles, celebrating the cultural richness of a region.
A pre-produced introduction tightly traced Los Angeles' history from the Gabrieleno Indians and pobladores to Rodney G. King. It also revisited the concept of race as a biological concept, with a USC anthropologist asserting that race "is not useful when talking about people," and a physician pointing out that race cannot be distinguished when looking at cells under a microscope.
This series of programs is an ambitious effort at returning honest dialogue to what sometimes appears to be a deteriorating debate. It falters at times, especially when a guest is interrupted in the middle of a cogent point. But that is the price of trying to accommodate 35 people in the studio for a two-hour show.
The effort is nonetheless worthwhile and to be applauded. It may not produce the passion that exploded cherished racial myths in those 1970s workshops, but as Mantle told his opening-night audience:
"The only agenda we have is for all of us to listen to each other with the intent of really hearing what we have to say."