A fear of the unjust in the black community

WILEY A. HALL

May 04, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

Two sermons by the Rev. Walter Thomas, pastor for one of Baltimore's largest black congregations, rather neatly define the black community's dilemma about crime.

On April 23, Mr. Thomas, of New Psalmist Baptist Church, preached on the theme "Justice for All?"

He questioned whether the three black men charged with beating Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, during the Los Angeles riots would receive the meticulous legal treatment and compassion given the four white police officers charged with beating Rodney King, who is black.

"My point was that when justice sees a black man coming into court, she raises her blindfold, takes a peep, then tips the scales against him," says Mr. Thomas.

"The congregation loved that one, because I was talking about an indictment of the system, about the system's responsibility to treat us fairly. There were shouts and 'Amens' throughout the whole sermon."

The next week, though, Mr. Thomas chose as his theme, "Boys Will be Boys?" -- a topic suggested by the April 17 fatal shooting of a 14-year-old West Baltimore youth by a city police officer. The teen-ager, who is black, allegedly was riding in a stolen car and was unarmed. The officer, a white man, was indicted on a manslaughter charge last week by a city grand jury and suspended without pay from the department.

Says Mr. Thomas: "I asked parents -- not specifically the parents of the young man, but all parents -- are you taking responsibility for the actions of your children? Are you doing all that you can do or are you making excuses for their misbehavior, saying, 'Oh well, boys will be boys?'

"Now, for that sermon, the congregation sat and listened," Mr. Thomas says. "They were very intense, because I was saying something that doesn't get said an awful lot in our community. I was saying that we must begin to take responsibility for the people within our community who are hurting us. We cannot blame the system all of the time."

Here is the pastor's point: "Blacks live in double jeopardy. We live in fear of the justice system. But we live in fear of those who are unjust within our own community. The word you don't hear very often is responsibility. There is an inter-community responsibility but there also is an intra-community responsibility and that begins with the family.

"Does what I am saying make sense to you?" asks Mr. Thomas, "or does it sound like just another conservative spiel?"

What he is saying makes a whole lot of sense. Many conservatives talk about family responsibility in an effort to excuse the system's failure to treat blacks fairly. But blaming the system also can become an excuse for a family's failure to supervise its young.

Says Mr. Thomas: "A child gets into trouble with the teacher and we say, 'Well that's just a boyish prank.' Then he gets sent to the principal's office. Then he's expelled. Then he's in jail. Next thing you know, he's dead.

"At what point did he move beyond a boyish prank? And where were the parents at that point? Parents must ask themselves whether they are responsible for contributing to an environment that enables their children to get away with the things they do."

*

Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, D-City, has taken great offense to a March 18 column in which I used the terms Uncle Tom and Stepin Fetchit.

Mr. Rawlings believes that the column, in effect, called him insulting names with offensive connotations, and he has asked the paper for an apology.

While I stand behind the gist of the March 18 column, I agree that name-calling is inappropriate, whether in print or in person, whether by direct statement or through innuendo.

I have said this to Mr. Rawlings and I am saying it again, publicly.

My goal, as it has been in the past, will be to take an unflinching look at public policy issues and how they affect people. If I disagree with the position of a public official, as I did in the Rawlings case, I will continue to say so as forcefully as the conventions of journalism allow. I can accomplish this, however, without name-calling.

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