Wake-up call

May 04, 1992

"It's a wake-up call," said a local African American businessman of the Los Angeles riots. Not that the U.S. in general or Baltimore in particular have been slumbering for the past two decades, but the decay of the inner cities has not been at the top of many agendas for a long while. Now it is again.

The verdict in the Rodney King beating case was just the spark. The tinder had been there all along, but it hadn't been attracting as much attention. Now it is again. Tragic as they were, the scores of deaths and half-billion dollars in property damage in Los Angeles and elsewhere have bought cities like Baltimore another chance.

Baltimoreans -- city dwellers and suburbanites alike -- should not be complacent about the fact this area came through last week's disturbances unscathed. Perhaps more significant to Baltimore than the Los Angeles rioting was the brief but violent outburst in Atlanta on Thursday.

Of all major cities, Atlanta is usually at the top of African Americans' lists of desirable places to live, with its long history of black political leadership and substantial black business community. Atlantans are still groping for explanations, but one black journalist said there plainly was "a deeper level of despair" than leaders realized among African American men who felt they had been excluded from the gains of the past quarter-century.

The anger that exploded in Los Angeles and a few other places lies not far below the surface in Baltimore as well. For all the opening of doors to blacks into the political and business arenas in the past 25 years, we are still two communities that live far apart except during working hours. A significant number of African Americans cross over into the white culture by necessity, but few whites take the trouble to experience black culture at close range. For most of us, perception is reality, and few of us base those perceptions on much more than dimly focused stereotypes.

The metropolitan area's civic leadership needs to take stock. That there have been great social and economic gains for minorities here during the past quarter-century is beyond dispute. But the perception of progress is relative. Observers of developing economies noted what came to be called the "revolution of rising expectations." The better conditions became, the more frustrated were those who believed they were being left behind. Something of that sort is at work in the nation's ghettos. That sense of being left behind must be addressed. So must the psychological barriers that still inhibit meaningful communication between the white and black communities.

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