Unfounded fears of prejudice


June 25, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

And all this time I had been brooding for the wrong reason.

"Good Lord!" people would exclaim whenever they saw my face. "You look like you've just lost your best friend!"

"No," I would answer with a mournful sigh, "I've just been brooding."

I had been brooding all this time about a story we did three months ago.

The story reported that some white city police officers had begun to fear that blacks are overrunning the department. They saw a near future where black officers got all the promotions, all the top positions, all the plush, cushiony assignments, while the careers of white officers would be stymied.

White officers were beginning to desert the city to fairer climes, we reported.

Said one white ranking officer, "The handwriting is on the wall, there's no mistaking it. There's very little opportunity left in this department for white officers."

Finally, our story quoted Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods, who denied that promotions had been based on race.

"Yeah," I said sadly as I plunged into a three-month fit of lTC brooding and funk, "we've heard such denials before."

Because we have heard them before.

These are exactly the kind of complaints black officers used to make when the Police Department, and indeed the entire city, was run by white men.

Black officers, the few who had been able to elbow their way onto the department, would look ahead and see a brick wall where their career was supposed to be. They would see that all of their hard work meant nothing because of the color of their skin.

Many would quit in despair.

Could it be that a black commissioner now was determined to do unto whites as whites had done unto blacks? I had begun to hope that such prejudices were a thing of the past. Were we doomed to wallow in ignorance forever?

And so, for three months, I brooded.

"Cheer up!" my friends would cry.

But no, there was no joy in Mudville.

It was in a foul mood, then, that I learned that the department planned to make still more promotions today: 18 officers will become sergeants, 11 sergeants will become lieutenants.

"The commissioner, the mayor, and all of the city's dignitaries would be on hand," said a police spokesman cheerfully.

"They have no shame," I said. "I suppose all of those promoted will still be black?"

And it was then -- after three months worth of funk -- that I learned I had been brooding for the wrong reasons.

It turns out that seven of the 18 new sergeants will be black. When they get their stripes, they will raise the total number of black sergeants on the force to 52. That's 14 percent.

It also turns out that five of the 11 new lieutenants will be black. That'll give the department 14 black lieutenants in all, also 14 percent.

In fact, blacks make up about 29 percent of the entire sworn force, whites 70 percent and "others" 1 percent.

There is a black police commissioner, to be sure. Indeed, the last three commissioners have been black.

But the four deputy commissioners are split evenly along racial lines -- at least until mid-July when Deputy Commissioner Ronald Mullen, who is white, leaves to head John Hopkins University's police force. Mullen, said our sources, "read the handwriting on the wall."

Most of the colonels and the majors who head the various divisions and departments are white: eight whites and three blacks, according to an informal count.

The district commanders are split almost evenly: five whites to four blacks.

Most of the captains, the lieutenants and the sergeants, as I've indicated, are white, as are the officers on patrol.

And so, I began to brood again.

"What in the world," brooded I, "are all of those white officers afraid of?"

For, by my count, unless Commissioner Woods is a wild man, the Baltimore City Police Department will remain predominantly white for years to come.

He has integrated his command staff. But as far as I can see, whites continue to be promoted.

The news is, measurable numbers of blacks are, too.

Isn't it important that we have an integrated police force in an integrated city: First, so that citizens will not view the department as an occupying army (as blacks certainly have in the past) but an integral part of their community? Second, so that young men will see the police force as a viable career?

Today, I brood that some of our white neighbors are staring at shadows again. They fled once before, when we moved in next door, and undercut the city's tax base. Now they threaten to flee again, and undercut our police protection. Some whites, it seems, are too easily spooked.

And so, I brood.

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