'We really haven't gone as far as we thought we had' King verdict and riots bring blacks up short

May 03, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Rosetta Stith, principal of Baltimore's Paquin School for pregnant teen-agers, delivers a relentlessly positive message to her predominantly black group of 300 girls.

But last week, in the wake of the Rodney King verdict and the Los Angeles riots, she was angry and distressed.

"One girl said, 'Even though it's Rodney King they beat, it's still me and I'm black. What does it mean to me if I have a son?' " Dr. Stith said. "We really haven't gone as far as we thought we had. The bus has just barely moved, as far as I'm concerned."

The arson, looting and violence in Los Angeles brought an anguished sense of deja vu to black Baltimoreans who remember the riots here nearly a quarter-century ago.

They were enraged by the acquittal of the white Los Angeles police officers videotaped beating a black man, and they were saddened watching rioters hurt innocent people and savage their own neighborhoods.

Even the most prosperous black citizens had to face their anger and ask themselves: Has nothing really changed?

"It shows us that the world really is as black people have always known it to be, and for white people it is a spark of awareness that maybe it is as black people say it is," said lawyer John H. Morris Jr.

Mr. Morris is a partner in Venable, Baetjer and Howard, one of Baltimore's most prestigious law firms, and he is the kind of black success story Americans point to as evidence of progress in the wake of the civil rights movement.

But Mr. Morris said that neither the King verdict nor the Los Angeles rioting should come as a surprise. The events merely opened the lid on "the depth and breadth of anger underlying things after 25 years," he said. "What it comes down to is no white person in this culture ever has to deal with being a nigger, a burden every black person carries."

Store owner Joseph C. Chapman sells liquor from behind a Plexiglas partition in a poor East Baltimore neighborhood. He agreed that black anger runs deep.

"The anger has always been there, and it's going to be there for at least another three generations. And as far as the Rodney King incident, I see that every day on the corner where I am. It is nothing new to the people in the ghetto," he said.

Clearly, life has changed for some blacks since the Baltimore riots of April 1968. Some middle-class blacks live in neighborhoods and work at jobs that were off-limits a generation ago. Twice as many Baltimore-area blacks were college graduates in 1990 as in in 1970.

Yet progress has left many blacks behind. A belt of almost all-black neighborhoods, mostly poor, covers almost 20 square miles of Baltimore. The poverty rate among blacks in Baltimore actually increased from 27.1 percent in 1970 to 27.9 percent two decades later. White households earn one-third more than blacks, on average.

Single women headed about one-third of black Baltimore families with children in 1970. Twenty years later, they headed 61 percent.

George Boston is a retired police officer in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown. While some blacks have moved up and out, he said, there "hasn't been too much change in Sandtown."

"Hasn't been much change at all.

"Devastation has been left behind. There's more despair, less hope. Many of these people have nothing to look forward to, and you can see it in the faces of the kids coming and going from school."

Baltimore had no high black officials in 1968. Now it has a black mayor, police commissioner, state's attorney and school superintendent.

But Lucille Gorham, a community organizer in East Baltimore who can still remember the taste the tear gas of 1968, said that the "young men on the street don't know much about the mayor. When he comes into the neighborhood, the police move everybody off the corners. It doesn't matter whether it's a black or white commissioner; police still harass them."

What divides the races goes beyond the lack of jobs or the faltering schools or even racism itself, she said.

"It's a deep kind of fear that other races, particularly white people, have of black people -- and particularly black men," she said.

As the mother of three sons, corporate lawyer Alice G. Pinderhughes, 40, said she found both the jury's view of Rodney King and televised images of marauding thugs disturbing. Ms. Pinderhughes, the daughter of Baltimore's former school superintendent, fears that negative stereotypes will shape how society sees her own sons.

"If a black male approaches, do you hold your pocketbook tighter? When you're trying to bring up boys to say this is not a racist society, that's frightening to me as a mother," she said. "I shouldn't have to feel this way in 1992."

Phil Brown, 51, is a Baltimore financial planner with a graduate education. He views himself as a beneficiary of the progress that has been made. But the King verdict was "a slap in the face," a reminder that "racism is alive and well."

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