Dreaming of Dubuque

December 22, 1991|By KEVIN THOMAS B

I'm thinking about moving to Dubuque.

The city council in that Iowa hamlet along the Mississippi River last May adopted a plan to attract 100 black families to the virtually all-white town [Population: 58,000]. As a believer in diversity, and someone who would qualify for this quota program on the basis of race, I might actually look forward to raising my family in the cradle of small-town values.

There's one problem. A sizable number of Dubuque residents don't like the recruitment program its city fathers have come up with. There was only one cross-burning that prompted the city council's plan. Now, there has been a rash of cross burnings in response.

The local high school has become a focal point of tension, with some of the school's 1,450 white students turning their wrath on the school's 12 black students.

In a front-page article in the New York Times recently , Donald Deich, the only member of the Dubuque city council to vote against the diversity plan, said he just didn't like the idea of taxpayers having to foot the bill for the recruitment.

"We're not all racists," Mr. Deich said. "They can bring in 200 of them as long as we don't have to pay for it. It doesn't bother me any. As long as they behave themselves and don't bring a bunch of ragtag relatives that cause trouble."

That's why I'm thinking about going to Dubuque; although short of a full-fledged move, I might prefer to just visit. I'd like to see up close the kind of bald-faced racism that has so many Dubuque youth expressing views they undoubtedly learned from their parents. And what would make anyone excited, as some Dubuque youth are, about the prospects of having the National Association for the Advancement of White People starting a chapter in their town?

I think a visit to Dubuque might help to shake me out of the complacency I've been feeling lately.

It's been a long time since I was a child growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, the only black in my elementary school classes. Indeed, during most of those years, there was only one other black in the entire school.

We had a pioneering spirit then. Those black families who took advantage of new fair housing laws to venture out to the suburbs were looking for something -- something better. The children in ,, those families became the first to slide behind tiny desks alongside white students, who I suppose were also pioneers in their own way.

Looking back, I have little doubt of what a curiosity I must have been to my white classmates. I endured questions about why I spoke the way I did, why my hair wasn't straight, whether or not I tanned in the sun. I was taunted about being a "Soul Brother" and once was even referred to jokingly as a burnt hot dog. I still can't laugh about that one, but only because I have never been able to understand what it was supposed to mean.

There was very little to laugh about then. Children had a way of saying things that adults were too circumspect to say.

The bottom line is that when I was growing up, things were a lot less subtle -- sort of the way they seem to be now in Dubuque.

And there was more commitment then. The goal was to integrate because segregation was evil. People were more ignorant in isolation and ignorance was a spawning ground for intolerance.

Like many people, I came to adulthood in search of an ideal. I'm raising my children as a reflection of that. We live in Columbia, founded on principles of tolerance and diversity. But maybe Columbia has made me soft to something ugly that's stirring again across the heartland of this country.

The fact that the Klu Klux Klan was spotted conducting a recruiting job in Western Howard County and that someone passed out racist literature in central Columbia last month hasn't entirely cracked the cocoon I feel here.

I hardly raised an eyebrow when I read on the front page of The Evening Sun that there has been an exodus of white families from the Liberty Road corridor of northwest Baltimore County as black families have steadily moved in.

Just another example of white flight I thought. Until I heard about Dubuque. Now, something keeps gnawing at me.

The truth is, if I lived in Randallstown, I might move too.

I don't want my children growing up where one of the local high schools is 86 percent black, in a county that is 11 percent minority. I, like some white Dubuque residents, also don't want my children growing up in an environment that's all white.

But I understand the ambivalence black families feel as their white neighbors depart. It was never about wanting to live where you may not be wanted.

It's about getting the best for your kids. It's about avoiding a school system that lowers its expectations when black children become a majority. It's about avoiding the ignorance of isolation that tells black children that being smart is acting white.

I might think I would move from Randallstown. But it's hard being committed when the choice may be to move and risk being treated like a pariah somewhere else.

Then again, it may be time for a lot of us to dust off those old ideals and go to Dubuque. It may shake us out of our complacency. We may still be treated like pariahs. But at least some people in Dubuque think things ought to change. And above all, what they don't have in Dubuque these days is subtlety.

Kevin Thomas is a reporter for The Evening Sun.

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