Color line borders on myth


May 05, 1991|By Neal Peirce and Curtis W. Johnson

Burned deep into the American consciousness, race remains a Baltimore obsession -- aggravated by the divisions of a border state, rooted in a half-truth.

The half-truth is that Baltimore's so black, the counties so white, that nothing else is much worth discussing.

Like any half-truth, some measure of fact lies behind it. Baltimore city is a lot blacker than any of the counties. The counties, in turn, are much whiter. Within Baltimore, there are neighborhoods where blackness, poverty, social ills and high crime intertwine. Out in the counties, one stumbles on glades of white suburban affluence.

Some of the regional leaders we talked with danced around the (( race issue; a few could talk about little else. But whether they addressed it outright or not, we could see them thinking race-race-race as they touched on any topic from new subway lines to schools to who gets to work for mayors and county executives.

To hear some Baltimoreans talk, race is the catchall that explains everything. Financial assistance for the city, for example. Or the factor that makes city schools hot spots of drugs and violence. Race is seen behind splintered families, teen-age pregnancy, the middle-class flight from Baltimore.

But a half-truth is not the real truth, and it's dangerous to let it masquerade unchallenged.

For one thing, what looks white is getting blacker, and what looks black is whiter than people think. The city may be 60 percent black, but it's also 40 percent white.

As for the counties, they're fast losing their lily-whiteness.

Baltimore County's black community has grown from 3 percent of total population in 1970 to more than 12 percent today. The Howard County black population was 8 percent; now it is almost 12 percent. Blacks in the counties are pocketed in a few places, but they are integrated in many more. Many hold important business or government or academic posts. Many earn excellent incomes. In one recent year, blacks in Howard County had higher average incomes than whites.

Anyone who sees only white when he looks at the suburbs is colorblind. Blacks work for the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, for state agencies in Jessup, in Fort Meade or Aberdeen, and at the new shopping malls in Owings Mills, Columbia, White Marsh and Marley Station.

A second half-truth is that blacks lack strong institutions, that the Baltimore region culture's only strengths are formed in the culturally dominant, white-oriented, European-rooted community.

Yet in fact, Baltimore and the counties have a rich panoply of black-led organizations. In higher education there's Morgan State University, Coppin State College and Sojourner-Douglass College. Black-oriented bookstores, museums, theater companies and choirs enrich the region's culture. On the civic scene, one finds the Black Community Council of 100, a vibrant Urban League chapter, business and professional organizations for black accountants, nurses, government workers and engineers. The national headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is in town.

The perception that blackness equals poverty, or whiteness affluence, is simply false. It's true that many middle-class blacks have left for the counties, leaving their old neighborhoods worse off. The migration has weakened the corner store, black newspapers, black inner-city churches. Sometimes one of the few vestiges of black middle-class life in urban neighborhoods is in "gathered churches," where former parishioners appear for worship but play little role in community life.

But notice: White flight has done the same thing to white inner-city neighborhoods. They've lost many of their role models, too. For proof, check out the struggle for survival going on among whites in such working-class neighborhoods as Hampden, Highlandtown or South Baltimore, or even in the far reaches of affluent Howard County. Making poverty seem all black makes poor whites invisible. But they're there. In the past few months, there have been reports of growing homelessness in Harford County, which is overwhelmingly white.

Equating blackness with crime is another insidious half-truth. Popular image makes inner-city Baltimore into some kind of combat zone, a kind of Beirut by the Bay. Whites conjure up images of falling victim to muggings and rapes by roving bands of black youths.

Reality says it's not exactly that way. There is gruesome crime in the city. But blacks -- not whites -- are overwhelmingly the victims. Blacks are two to three times as likely to be crime victims as whites. Stolen purses, women assaulted, stores robbed at gunpoint -- the odds are that blacks will be the victims.

Whites seem to believe they have a monopoly on fear. They should talk with more blacks, learn of the fearsome, poignant fear of crime that many black families must live with practically every day of their lives.

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