About 1,300 people have already registered for tomorrow's Baltimore Summit on Race Relations, and more are expected to sign up at the door.
The summit is scheduled in two sessions, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and from 4 to 9 p.m., at the Baltimore Convention Center. It will feature workshops on a variety of topics on race relations: youth, cultural diversity, criminal justice, education, business, religion, media, government, African-American and Jewish relations, and African-American and Korean relations.
"The idea is for people to come together and sit down and be able to say what's on their minds, whether it sounds good or not," said George N. Buntin, executive director of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "We want people in the community to talk to each other."
The sparks for the summit occurred in July, when violent incidents involving blacks and whites happened on successive days.
The first occurred in Remington, when white men allegedly stabbed a black man to death. The second took place in Highlandtown, when white men allegedly chased a black man into the street, where he was hit by a pickup truck. The man had been walking with a white woman.
Maj. Bernard Harper, director of the Baltimore Police Department's community relations division, said yesterday that investigators determined the incident in Remington was not racially motivated. Circumstances other than race were involved, he said. He declined to elaborate.
Nevertheless, the two incidents spurred Buntin and representatives of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance to meet with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and urge a summit on race relations. Schmoke readily agreed and even assigned the city's Community Relations Commission to organize it, Buntin said.
Asked this week to assess the state of race relations in Baltimore, Buntin said: "I don't think Baltimore is any different from any other city. Race relations in the United States have deteriorated. This goes back to the past 10 years or so, back to the beginning of the Reagan administration."
Buntin said President Reagan "kind of set the tone for attitudes in this country. He gave hope to those who want to preach hate. And there are lots of hate-baiters around."
Just Wednesday night, a small group of people calling themselves the Eastern Hammer Skinheads distributed racist literature in Hampden and surrounding communities.
In a separate interview, John B. Ferron, director of the Community Relations Commission and chairman of the summit's organizing committee, agreed that race relations deteriorated while Reagan was president and have not improved under President Bush.
But still, Ferron said, Baltimore seems to have fewer racial problems than many other large cities. He and Buntin mentioned events and programs that ensure that people in Baltimore at least talk with one another. They mentioned the City Fair, Artscape, ethnic festivals, the mayor's stations, the city's Community Relations Commission, community groups, the Police Department's community relations division and ministerial associations.
When something violent happens here that might have racial overtones, the voices that prevail seem to be voices of reason. After the two incidents in July, for instance, here, in Buntin's words, is how the NAACP reacted:
"We didn't want to go out and raise hell and whip people's furor up. We wanted to do something constructive."
L "Something constructive" turned out to be tomorrow's summit.
"We see it as the beginning of a process rather than as a solitary event," said Tod Rutstein, founder and director of the Baltimore Institute for the Healing of Racism. "I would hope that an individual would walk away from this summit with a recognition of his or her role in all this. . . .
"Nobody's exempt. I really believe that racism is a disease. And everybody in society is either infected or affected by that disease."
Ki Woong Kim, vice president of the Korean Society of Maryland, said he hopes that people come away with a better understanding of Korean culture, and therefore, a better understanding of Korean merchants.
Americans expect to be greeted and smiled at and slapped on the back when they shop at a store.
"But when we were brought up in Korea," Kim said, "we were taught that looking into a person's eyes is not a respectful thing to do. We don't smile a lot. We don't have very much facial expression."
He said that Koreans were brought up believing that smiling and laughing a lot was "very silly." But Korean merchants in Baltimore, Kim said, are learning to smile and promote better relations with their customers.
One lasting effect of the summit may be a coalition that emerges from the organizing committee. The members have discussed forming a group and keeping an eye on race relations in the city.
"I've been inspired by that kind of creativity," said Buntin.