Words matter . . .

February 03, 1992

To some people, the reaction to a casual racist remark by a Mardela Springs town commissioner is nothing more than a tempest in a teapot. But words matter -- as demonstrated by the concern and anger expressed by nearly 200 people who packed a Methodist church there last week.

The commissioner who referred to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as "Buckwheat's birthday" lives in an Eastern Shore town of 360 residents located five miles southeast of Vienna near U.S. 50. It has only four black families. But those families deserve the same respect the commissioner's other constituents receive.

Few people would maintain that such remarks or the attitudes that produce them are unheard of on the Eastern Shore or, for that matter, in many other parts of Maryland. But for those who dismiss such language as unimportant, it's worth noting that racist language can reinforce dangerous patterns of thinking.

A good example comes from New York City, which is still coming to terms with a tragedy at City College in which nine young people were killed as an out-of-control crowd pushed against the doors leading to a gymnasium where rap stars were to play a charity basketball game. Inquiries into the disaster produced reports that police officers, who could have helped bring order to the scene and perhaps saved lives, instead stood by doing nothing -- while referring to the unruly, largely minority crowd with de-humanizing terms.

So the Mardela Springs incident cannot simply be dismissed as a case of an elected official failing to be politically correct. Words have consequences, and as the New York tragedy suggests, racist attitudes -- often reflected in racist remarks -- can contribute to tragic circumstances.

Some Eastern Shore residents are calling for the commissioner's resignation, while others are ready to circle the wagons, insisting that the remark was harmless and was not an indication of racism. Resignation may be too strong a punishment. But clearly the commissioner owes his constituents and neighbors -- both black and white -- an apology.

One thing this country should have learned in the long, tangled history of relationships between the races is that insensitive comments and prejudicial attitudes make life more difficult for all Americans, regardless of color or creed.

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