Blacks and whites strip away surface to face racial tension


December 02, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the day Southern High School was racially integrated 36 years ago, Joe DiBlasi's mother kept him home.

DiBlasi was only an elementary school kid in 1954, but fear swept like a plague through all of South Baltimore that day: Would there be fighting? Would it spread from Southern High across the neighborhoods? Was it safe for anyone to send their kids to any school now that integration had become the law of the land?

Thirty-six years later, DiBlasi, now a city councilman from South Baltimore, stood next to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke at the Convention Center, and the two of them looked on as more than 2,000 people marched in Friday for the Baltimore Summit on Race Relations.

"Things have changed," DiBlasi said, "haven't they, Mr. Mayor?"

The mayor muttered something indistinct. Maybe he was distracted by four skinheads marching on Pratt Street. They are holdovers from an age of darkness. Maybe he was thinking about his own school days, when the racial balance was tipping from white to black and kept tipping and tipping.

Maybe he was wondering where we go in a city where some still define themselves by skin color and not by the things that should unite us but sometimes do not.

That's what Friday's conference was all about: people from a variety of ages and races, concerned about underlying racial tension and wondering: Where do we go from here?

Do we go from a black man venting a lifetime of frustration at a white man at a conference workshop? "You ran," he cried. "Thirty years ago, when we moved into Ashburton, you ran. And if you come back today, you'll see that we're still there, and we're still maintaining our homes, and you're still running."

Do we go from a white man replying, "The problem is not what you and I say to each other, but what we say in our homes to our own families."

We can proceed from both places, if only we will. The summit on race relations was a wonderful starting point, but that's all. In a nation where race is the great unspoken, where we clothe it in euphemisms and code words, it is a healthy thing to have people talking to each other, and venting their frustrations, and groping through the confusion for help.

But where do we go from here?

"We meet each other in the workplace," an elderly white woman said in one emotional workshop Friday. "When I came here 40 years ago, we didn't even meet each other in the lavatories."

"That's right," a white man on the other side of the room whispered. "But it isn't 1950 anymore, and it isn't 1850. Why can't we look ahead, instead of looking behind?"

Where do we go from here?

"Honesty," said Councilwoman Vera Hall. "If you can't be honest, you can't face the problems. I'll hear comments that Koreans aren't welcome. I say, 'My goodness, you know what that feels like, so how can you talk like that?' Honesty. That's what we need."

Where do we go from here?

A thin veneer of civility covers the nation, and Baltimore is a microcosm. In the great hall of the Convention Center, people mixed easily and talked amicably. In the little workshops, though, you heard generations of pain and anger demanding their moment.

Yes, people were saying, we want to talk about better race relations. But, first, attention must be paid to what happened before.

And so you moved from room to room, watching as some vented their anger and others grew impatient to move along.

"There's a kind of eerie tranquillity in race relations," Mayor Schmoke was saying before he spoke to the crowd. "It's calm on the surface, but there's tension beneath. The rhetoric of the Reagan years didn't help, and now you have George Bush saying no to civil rights legislation. That creates a climate of apparent hostility to minorities."

Schmoke never saw an integrated classroom until he got to Garrison Junior High and City College. In that time, the '60s, there were still dreams of a truly integrated school system.

"It made a big difference in my life," he said, "to go to a school with white kids and black kids."

"Sure," Councilman DiBlasi said now. "You played sports, and the other kids were your teammates. You went to class, and they were your classmates. You got to know each other. And if you had an incident occur, it wasn't race, it was life."

He is talking about a kind of color unconsciousness that now sounds like a piece out of the distant past. Today, the city schools are 85 percent black, and the neighborhoods around them tend to break down by color.

The black man screaming about white flight 30 years ago is right. But the white man who talked of teaching our own families to accept each other is right, too. We all know the history of race in America.

The question is: Where do we go from here? Nobody had answers Friday. But at least they were groping together. And that's a starting point.

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