Race summit takes first step

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

December 04, 1990|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

On Friday, a ragtag handful of hatemongers, toting placards and the Confederate flag, marched around and around in a pathetic little circle near the Baltimore Convention Center. Geeks on parade.

Everything about them, from the way they looked to the things they said, broadcast a clear, though unintentioned message to passersby: When it comes to race relations, they said inadvertently, our opinions are totally irrelevant.

So forget about the hatemongers, the skinheads. They don't count. They are a joke. They are as laughable as they look.

Who else but a geek, after all, would shave his head and carry around a Confederate flag 125 years after the Confederates got whipped in a fair fight. The Confederate flag is a symbol for losers.

Violence and bigotry is not the big problem, anyway.

The true problem, the racial frontier, lies in that twilight zone of deeds left undone, thoughts that fester unspoken, assumptions that go unchallenged.

The true racial frontier exists in the workplace, in the classroom and in the courtrooms where justice is done.

And, everyday, the races clash -- silently but with ninja-like ferocity -- in the political arena where priorities are set, values are defined and leaders are determined.

The racial frontier is a sort of no-man's-land where people fear to tread but where silent battles are fought.

Who gets promoted on the job, and why?

Where do people choose to live or shop?

Into which programs are public funds allocated and what are the goals?

This is the frontier, where the races clash, where resentments and misunderstandings fester.

This is the racial no-man's-land and it has existed for so long and it can get so ugly in there that between bouts most of us have trained ourselves not to think about it, not to see it.

So let me say this quickly before my own memory fades: For all of its flaws, the city's summit on race relations at the Baltimore Convention Center last Friday ventured, albeit timidly, into areas where most of us fear to tread.

In fact, I felt a curious exhilaration during the workshops Friday that lasted all through the weekend and for most of yesterday. Through all of the predictable rhetoric and sermonizing, occasional moments of honesty and understanding peeped through.

I left there thinking: We can do it. The races are not that far apart. All we need do is talk.

The problem is, we rarely do.

For example, Friday's summit was held free of charge and open to the public. Organizers say about 2,000 people participated and I saw a pretty wide spread of ethnic groups in attendance.

A number of Korean business people showed up, for instance, to join a discussion of black-Korean relationships.

A number of Jewish people joined in an animated discussion of black-Jewish relations.

But the overwhelming majority of the participants were black and, for the most part, they were preaching to the choir.

They told themselves that black individuals have to take responsiblity for their own destinies and that black communities must do the same.

They also told themselves that racism and bigotry are realities that grow out of the inability of whites to see things from a black perspective.

Unfortunately, not enough whites were present at Friday's summit to turn the monologue into a dialogue.

Maybe one workshop participant out of 10 was white, and most of the whites there appeared to be connected to an agency or organization relating to the issue.

In contrast, many of the black participants were there out of a personal concern -- racism and its effects still are largely considered a black problem.

Often, the whites at the summit seemed unwilling to challenge the prevailing sentiment in the workshops that disparities in such things as promotion and hiring, in classroom performance between black and white students and in relative wealth are due to white racism.

Yet, opinion polls consistently show that a majority of whites attribute many of those disparities to blacks themselves.

Next time, there should be a regional summit on race relations. There should be no racial minorities in the workshops.

And the summit should be a no-holds-barred, say-it-even-if-it hurts affair.

Maybe they should bar the doors until it's over.

Ultimately, dialogue is the only cure.

Racism craves darkness and silence.

It dies in the light.

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