Council's behavior exposes a number of truths, some ugly

MICHAEL OLESKER

March 24, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Never mind those lines drawn on a map. They were reall drawing lines in the sand at City Hall last week, when the alleged leaders of this city fought over new district boundaries and asked people to take sides by skin color.

Kiss the great renaissance of Baltimore bye-bye. Remember the renaissance? Among other things, it was based on good will, on people of different races saying color cannot divide us if this fragile city is to survive.

The most troubling aspect of last week's petulant, selfish and insensitive City Council debate was the unspoken declaration that race really does matter and that we are all deluding ourselves to think otherwise.

Here, for example, was Mike Curran, the white Northeast Baltimore councilman, talking ominously of ''the rape of neighborhoods'' if a black-supported redistricting plan went through. Does this man have a subtle vocabulary or what?

Here, for another example, was Sheila Dixon, the black West Baltimore councilwoman, waving her shoe in the faces of white colleagues and declaring, ''The shoe is on the other foot now.'' Does this woman know how to be incendiary or what?

Then there were those black council members who looked at Mayor Schmoke's original redistricting plan, brushed it aside, and said it showed the mayor wasn't committed to his own race.

What does this mean -- that the mayor should only look after white citizens after he's looked after black citizens?

Implicit in all the hysteria last week is one simple fact: When the chips are down, almost nobody in the City Council seems to trust anybody of different skin color, and they want all of their constituents to know it and to arm themselves accordingly.

This is not leadership; it is racial exploitation.

By objecting so passionately to the black-supported redistricting plan, whites are implying that white citizens won't get fair treatment from any blacks who might be elected to the council.

By insisting on a plan that makes five of six city districts majority black, blacks are implying that black citizens can't get fair treatment from any whites elected to the council.

Is there any other explanation? Well, yes, but it assigns even more guilt to council members: that their arguments have nothing to do with looking out for their constituents, but only for their own jobs.

And if that's the case, what each council member is really saying to voters is this: The other race is a danger, so let's all stick together and save me.

Let's assume -- a shaky assumption, we all know -- that their motives are purer than that.

What we're left with, then, is the depressing breakdown of all that this community has officially tried to embrace for the past 20 years: a spirit of getting along with each other. In

stead, it's a return to the politics of racial exclusiveness that brought this city to its knees in the first place.

''What can we do,'' West Baltimore Councilman Lawrence Bell asked at a crowded hearing last week, ''about machines that won't put blacks on their ticket? Blacks have supported whites, but whites haven't supported blacks.''

He aimed his words at state Sen. George Della, who'd come to City Hall to testify against the council redistricting plan. Della knows about machines, and he knows about political power in his home district of South Baltimore, too.

''We could have prevented all this trouble if white organizations had put somebody on their ticket,'' Bell cried now. ''What can we do about the mentality of these older organizations?''

''What about Du Burns?'' Della shot back. ''Ask him how he got where he is.''

Is that beautiful? Della's Stonewall Democratic Club backed Du Burns for mayor, and everybody's supposed to forget that Burns' opponent wasn't white, it was a black man named Kurt Schmoke. When has Stonewall backed a black against a white? For that matter, why has South Baltimore's 6th District, maybe half black, never had a black council member?

What we're left with is absurd language.

On one hand, there are those like Della, trying to answer Bell by declaring, ''It takes time. These things take time.'' Are you listening, George Wallace?

But on the other hand, there are the black council members talking of seizing power along clear racial lines. Are these voices the descendants of those who once spoke to white America of integration? Is integration only a goal when whites have power and not when blacks can take it for their own?

The answers determine the future of this city for reasons having TC little to do with lines on a map. Forget all that redistricting stuff. You call your City Council person if your street's got potholes or the neighborhood park's filled with trash. Skin color isn't going to determine if the work gets done.

What's tragic here is what the lines represent: sides being chosen by race, and council members passing their fears onto their constituents by drawing on the most divisive of our instincts.

For years, intelligent people in this town have sneered at the City Council as a bunch of buffoons who rarely accomplished serious work. Now that they've taken up serious work, they've raised the very issue that once nearly destroyed this city.

How much nicer it was when the council was merely laughable.

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