East Baltimore County students' fashion statements have racial connotations Attire, attitudes raise concern at schools

February 22, 1993|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Staff Writer

The 16-year-old walks the halls of Patapsco High School every day wearing his "uniform" -- a black nylon bomber jacket, chocolate-colored;jeans and a T-shirt. On his feet are a pair of black, 14-eyelet "Doc" Martens combat boots.

But he can't wear the white shoelaces he favors these days. They've been banned at the eastern Baltimore County school.

In this corner of the world, shoelaces are more than a fashion statement. For many students, they're symbols of white power -- messengers of racial intolerance and hatred.

"Yes, I believe in white supremacy -- to a degree," the youth says in measured tones. "I feel whites are a better race than the blacks because they are the cause of most of our society's problems."

Messages like that have led to an escalation of racial violence between a loosely organized group of "skinheads" -- white students who wear the bomber jackets and boots -- and a group of black students and their white sympathizers known at the school as "yo boys."

Several white vs. black clashes over the last four months have galvanized school administrators, students, teachers, parents and community leaders, who say they were caught by surprise and want to stop the violence.

The students interviewed for this story all requested anonymity because, they said, they fear physical violence if they are identified.

No one knows just how the incidents started. By most accounts, they began when a group of white students began showing up in so-called skinhead uniforms -- clothing that meant nothing to adults at first.

"When more students began wearing skinhead attire, black students and yo boys began wearing black-power symbols," said Barbara Russell, Patapsco principal. "Then both groups started jumping each other."

Eleven racial incidents involving Patapsco students have occurred since October, most off school property, Mrs. Russell said. Some resulted in arrests, police and school officials said, and at least three students have been expelled.

At one of Patapsco High's feeder schools, Stricker Middle School, Principal Raymond L. McColgan said he knows of five racial incidents this year, also off school property. At least three students there have been expelled, too.

Whites predominate numerically at both schools. Patapsco High has 40 black students out of a school population of 1,075. Mrs. Russell estimates the number of skinheads at fewer than 50. Of Stricker's 900 students, only 35 are black.

As a result of the clashes, small groups of teachers and students are meeting to discuss their feelings about race. Another school meeting drew an estimated 300 people from the community. And principals at both schools have banned red and white shoelaces and Nazi medals -- the symbols of white supremacy -- as well as black-power symbols.

But all agree agree that the clothing and haircuts mask a far deeper problem.

"They can force me not to wear certain color shoelaces if they want, but it's not going to change what I feel," said the 16-year-old. "It's in the heart, not in the clothes."

No one can point to any particular explanation for the escalation in racial tension.

"We've just come through a hard, three-year recession that has resulted in a lot of unemployment here," Mr. McColgan said. "Historically, this had led to incidents of racial violence. But I can't tell you if that is the root cause here."

The whole thing puzzles parents, including those of students involved.

"I don't share his viewpoint on that at all," said the 16-year-old white youth's father. "But he's entitled to his own opinions. Maybe when you get your head beat in, it colors your viewpoint a little."

The youth said he was was beaten in what he considers an unprovoked attack by a group of black youths and yo boys. At the time, he was wearing white shoelaces in his Doc Martens.

While he may be a white-power advocate, he said, he doesn't believe in the neo-Nazism that he says is at the hallmark of a true skinhead. "I don't believe in using violence to express your beliefs or clubbing someone simply because they are of a race you don't like."

On the other side, a 17-year-old black student at Patapsco said there have been isolated racial incidents in the past at the school, but nothing compared with this year. He also couldn't explain why.

He said he belongs to a group of other black students and yo boys. "We stick together," he said, "because nobody else is going to stick up for us."

He faces multiple charges stemming from his involvement in one of the racial incidents.

"We beat up a couple of skinheads," he said matter-of-factly. "If people are going to call us n and wear Nazi and white-power symbols, we're going to beat them up."

Three weeks ago, Mrs. Russell banned the wearing of Nazi symbols, Confederate flags, red or white shoe laces and any kind of black-power symbols. At Stricker, Mr. McColgan imposed the same dress code. Mrs. Russell said she wishes she could have gone further.

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