Eclipse of Community

STEPHEN HAYES

December 16, 1992|By STEPHEN HAYES

I was in the neutral zone, an edge of downtown Baltimore where whites venture with growing infrequency at night. But I had been working late and wanted a quick snack. The buildings on the way were mostly empty, monuments to failed dreams.

The streets were cold and empty when I went into the restaurant, even colder and emptier when I came out a half hour later. Halfway across the plaza two men, both black, walked toward me, hands in their coat pockets. Our courses were bearing toward one another. I veered and they veered toward me again. I abruptly turned, walked quickly back into the restaurant and waited for them to walk by. They turned and walked between two buildings, then disappeared into a parking lot.

I walked briskly to my car, angry at myself. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, and I had slipped into the paranoia of every white man's urban nightmare.

I did have an excuse: I had been robbed at gunpoint before, once on Park Avenue in New York, a block from the Waldorf-Astoria. Several passers-by had at first looked concerned; then they looked away. That stayed with me, and chance encounters have never again come so casually.

This time the feeling was not the same, however. Weeks later I was still angry. My first time as a victim I could attribute it to the price of living in New York. But now the feeling was different. I am no longer comfortable in America. The disease of violence, with its cancerous fear, has spread everywhere. As surely as tumor kills the individual this cancer is killing America.

My friend told me not to blame myself. Better safe than sorry, she said. But the truth is that we are no longer a country at peace. We are at war, a civil war between rich and poor, white and black, black and black.

Encounters increasingly are met with suspicion. We are all becoming prisoners in our own country.

As if we were in the midst of some Central American civil conflict, there are safe zones and zones held by the terrorists, especially under the cover of darkness. We have even imposed the conditions of a police state upon ourselves by carefully limiting what we might say lest it upset someone who may be carrying a concealed weapon. And in our silence and withdrawal the killings mount.

In three years, more American men have been murdered in our cities than during 13 years of war in Vietnam. More than 60,000 young people, mostly black, have lost their lives in killings. If only one-hundredth of this number of Americans had been killed in a foreign nation we would have invaded under a tidal wave of patriotic fervor. If 60,000 young white men had died through killings we would have called out the National Guard and had every law enforcement agency in America cracking down.

As it is, as long as blacks kill blacks in their own neighborhoods, whites leave the problem to under-manned police homicide units. No matter that most of the people in the killing zones are as decent as those outside it and live constantly with the kind of fear the rest of us only rarely encounter. Our answer is to continue to segregate ourselves, seeking safety first -- the safety of private schools, suburban neighborhoods, of isolation and insulation from the chance encounter.

This cannot last. Every step toward segregation demeans us. By accepting the killing zones, by accepting substandard schools, by accepting politicians who reassure us with friendly banality we demean ourselves. Every step we take away from the whole society makes us smaller because we have accepted this society as it is and not as it could be.

Each day the territory on which we feel comfortable diminishes and the possibilities of life diminish with it. We can't keep running away. There is no place to hide any more.

We must re-engage with those we perceive as the enemy, and we must re-engage with ourselves. We must reclaim our humanity and our courage. Our cities and towns cannot work without the courage to come together, to openly reveal who we are, unafraid of rejection or political correctness.

No single entity -- business, politics, social work, religion -- can solve the American dilemma alone, for the crisis is one of division and fragmentation and the claiming of territory -- physical or psychological. The boundary lines of our minds not only keep the intruder out, they keep us trapped within.

The re-engagement of all facets of community leadership is essential, as is the courage to engage in candid dialogue and seek common ground upon which solutions can be built. We all lose if we fail to seek that common ground. We all lose if we allow ourselves, through our fears and prejudices, to be further polarized, separated and isolated -- especially by those we call our leaders -- because we ourselves have walked away from engagement.

Stephen Hayes is president of the Baltimore-based American Center for International Leadership.

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