Students Talk About Race VERDICT REACTION: THINKING ABOUT RACE RELATIONS

May 03, 1992|By SANDRA CROCKETT | SANDRA CROCKETT,Sandra Crockett is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

Young people, as they are often told, are "the future."

As a result of the Rodney King verdict, some voices from that future were moved to take a serious look at how their generation is handling "the race question."

The students were from the predominately white Catonsville Middle School and the predominately black Milford Mill High School. They spoke at their own schools, the day after the Rodney King verdict, when emotions were still exposed and raw.

At Catonsville Middle, six students from teacher Steven Young's social studies class -- five white and one black -- sat talking in a small conference room. Catonsville has an 18 percent minority population among its 519 students.

None of the students in the conference room agreed with the verdict, and all said they saw no difference among blacks and whites. However, many said they were disturbed to see prejudice among their friends.

"A lot of teens are really prejudiced and they are not so much older than us," said Katie Nechamkin, 13. "I don't see how that happens."

Yet, many said their parents -- probably unintentionally -- are implanting negative ideas into their heads about blacks.

For instance, some of the white youths explained, parents identify shopping malls or neighborhoods as "black malls" and "black neighborhoods," then tell their children not to go near them.

The white students said they have black friends as did the black youth, Sidney Wade, 13, who said he "might sometime hang around with white people." But the friendships do not extend beyond the school doors. "I'm not close friends with them here," said Sidney commenting on his white friends.

One girl, Abby Houff, has close black friends at the school. "We exchanged notes and call each other up all of the time," she said. But they don't see one another outside of school.

It can be explained, at least partly, because the white children reside on neighborhood blocks in areas of Catonsville where there are no blacks living.

Two of the girls, who live on the same block, spoke of a neighbor who talks about how horrible it would be if a black family bought a home there. The children thought such talk was ridiculous.

Only one boy, 12-year-old Adam Smith, said he and his family are close friends with a black family. "My parents grew up knowing this black couple," he said. "We are very close."

PTC Abby and other students said it is sometimes the black students who seem to draw an invisible line between the races. She remembers a school trip to a predominately black school in Woodlawn.

A black student at the other school said, according to Abby, "That's a white school. We don't belong there." She added, "They shouldn't do that to themselves," she said.

Over at Milford Mill High School, which has an 87 percent minority population out of 785 students, sophomore Noree Johnson walked around as if she were carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders.

A young black woman who has plans to go to college, Noree said she is very much concerned that racial discrimination will keep her from reaching the top of whatever career she chooses.

"I worry when I get out into the real world whether I am going to be discriminated against in my profession, whether it is going to stop me from getting to the top," Noree, 16, said.

Her friend sophomore Tanyka Barber, 15, agreed. "It probably will affect me," she said. "Although I hope not."

Noree and Tanyka organized a brief peaceful walkout of about 20 students "in honor of Rodney King."

Later in the day, Noree read a brief speech over the public address system at Milford Mill.

"I would like to end my speech by saying to each and every one of you that race-motivated violence is truly wrong and should be punished," she told the students in a voice shaking with emotion.

"But if we are ever to get ahead in this society, then we must all come together and work for the common cause of ending racism and violence," Noree said.

Where does this leave the students?

At Catonsville, Julie Knudson, 12, summed up the feelings of her peers about race.

"We can't really be sure about the future," she said.

At Milford Mill, Noree said there is only one thing she can do to ensure her future. "I'm just going to do the best I can do. That's all I can do," she said.

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