Bigotry in Howard?

January 23, 1992

A Howard County teen-ager chose Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday to distribute white supremacist newspapers in Columbia, a town he claims has been "brainwashed" into racial and religious acceptance. Over the past couple of months, similar newsletters have found their way onto lawns in other Columbia neighborhoods. An all-black church in Mount Airy was ransacked by vandals on three separate occasions. Just last month, a 14-year-old black girl was sprayed with a can of Lysol on a county school bus. The number of racial, religious and ethnic incidents in Howard County has increased fourfold since the late '80s.

Members of the local branch of the NAACP complain that the county is looking the other way. The Ecker administration counters that it is "exceedingly concerned" about these incidents. In a statement this month, County Executive Charles I. Ecker noted that "every time one of these hate incidents is allowed to occur, it victimizes all our citizens."

If Mr. Ecker is serious -- and we believe he is -- these regrettable displays of intolerance should be immediately addressed. One move in that direction would be finding someone to head the Office of Human Rights, which has remained rudderless since late last year.

Howard has grown rapidly around Columbia, a planned town founded on the principles of free choice and tolerance. As such, it has drawn scores of minorities looking for an alternative to the racial and ethnic barriers that characterize too many Baltimore neighborhoods. Perhaps it is a sign of tough economic times, perhaps a consequence of rapid growth, but the ideal is beginning to fray around the edges. Acts of individual terrorism are only the most obvious sign. Black parents are concerned about subtle racial intolerance and stereotyping in county schools. The county police force has been accused time and time again of insensitive behavior toward non-whites.

Changing bigoted attitudes may be impossible. But county officials ought to send the message -- by words and action -- that such behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

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