A task force for 'others'

Wiley A. Hall

May 23, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall

All we talk about in this city, it seems, is the power struggle between blacks and whites. It's as if other people don't count at all.

Thus, we had a brief but bitter fight at City Hall earlier this year over a new political map designed to increase black representation in the City Council at the expense of whites.

But what about Hispanic representation, and Native American representation, and representation for those here who are Korean, Cambodian, Chinese or Japanese?

Not one word about any of them, although, in truth, there are no elected Asian, Hispanic, or Indian persons currently at City Hall. There haven't been any in recent memory, and there probably won't be, barring some unforeseen, cataclysmic upheaval in the body politic.

And in the schools, there is a big debate over the need for what we euphemistically call a "multi-cultural" curriculum, although this too boils down to a tug-of-war between those of European heritage and those who hail from Africa.

Are the "others" happy with their representation in the textbooks?

Of course not! they answer.

In fact, we barely bother to count Hispanics, Asians and Indians in the census. On many charts, they simply are lumped together and called "the others."

And that, by and large, is how they are made to feel -- like "others."

Folks down in Washington learned the hard way early this month that you can ignore the "others" but you can't make them go away.

But it took the shooting of a 30-year-old Hispanic man by District police and two days of riots to wake up Washington.

After the smoke cleared, D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon convened a task force on multiculturalism to examine the problems confronted by the District's "others."

We need to make a similar start in Baltimore.

For the record, there were 7,638 persons of Spanish origin here in Baltimore in 1980, 4,949 Asians and Pacific Islanders and 2,108 American Indians.

In 1980, blacks made up 55 percent of the population and whites comprised 43 percent. The "others" comprised just 1.3 percent, but while the city's white population dropped by 28 percent between 1970 and 1980 and the black population grew by just 2.6 percent, the "others" leaped by 84 percent.

The 1990 Census is expected to show that trend has accelerated over the past decade.

Despite their growing presence in the city, many of these "others" still feel alienated from and ignored by the body politic, the social and economic fabric of the city.

"It seems like every other group in the city has pounded on the table and demanded political power," said Barry Richardson, director of the American Indian Center on South Broadway.

"We've tried, but we simply have not been heard. We have no power at the board of education, no power at City Hall. It has been said that the squeaky wheel gets the most grease. We aren't squeaking loud enough."

"We think of Hispanics as the minority group of minority groups," said Belinda Osorio, who tutors Spanish-speaking children in East Baltimore.

"Anglo needs are looked at first. Blacks are looked at second. Then, maybe, maybe, they'll think about Hispanic needs -- but only if we make a loud enough noise."

Said Jai Ryu, the mayor's assistant for Korean affairs: "In the minds of most Koreans, there is a big gap between what they think of themselves and what others think of them. Koreans tend to think of themselves as the most misunderstood, most unappreciated minority group. It is a powerlessness and frustration and a sense of not being a welcome part of the city."

The different communities describe different needs and priorities.

American Indians, for instance, focus on the school system. "We have one of the highest drop-out rates in the city -- something like 90 percent -- yet it is not being addressed at all," said Richardson. "The school system obviously isn't working for us."

Members of the Hispanic and Korean communities pointed to language and cultural barriers confronting newly arrived immigrants.

Then, there are immigrants from Jamaica, the West Indies and Africa. India and Pakistan. China, Japan and the Philippines. North Africa and the Middle East. They all have a whole spectrum of needs and concerns that goes way beyond our parochial black and white squabbles.

This is a color-blind city, all right. Too often we see just black or white and nothing in-between.

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