For economic success, we must deal with race

WILEY A. HALL

May 11, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

The name of this song is: It's All About Race. Repeat after me:

It's all about race.

It's all about race.

It's all about race.

Yeah, that's right, the same old tune. I bet you're tired of hearing it. I bet you're shouting, even now, "Get me that telephone, honey. I want to cancel my subscription. That blankety-blank Wiley is singing about race again!"

Well, I've got news for you: the problem isn't going away. You either learn to deal with it or you get left behind. Because (all together now):

It's all about race.

Yesterday, the Baltimore Chapter of the NAACP brought two leaders of Atlanta's business community to town and asked them to share the secret of that city's economic success.

Most, if not all, of Baltimore's top corporate and political leaders were in attendance. Blacks and whites. They had breakfast. They said prayers.

And this is what the two Atlanta businessmen told the group:

It's all about race.

"We discovered that it is important that we keep the word 'race' on the agenda at all times," said Felker W. Ward Jr., an Atlanta lawyer and investment banker.

"It really is about race. Pick any subject relating to the central city, particularly anything relating to economic development, and after you've boiled away all of the rhetoric, after you've dealt with all of the side issues and peripherals, it all comes down to race.

"If communities are not willing to confront the race issue squarely, if they are not willing to talk about it frankly, they are not going to have true, secure, broad-based economic development," said Mr. Ward.

"It is all about race."

See? I told you.

The visitors said that Atlanta is shaped by the same economic and social forces that shaped Baltimore and many other cities.

The civil rights movement gave blacks political power and broke down the barriers to employment, particularly in the public sector. But as blacks gained political power, whites held onto their economic clout and fled to the suburbs. With them went much of the tax resources needed to maintain quality schools.

As schools deteriorated and jobs declined, crime went up, seeming to confirm many of the stereotypes whites held about blacks. And that reaction, in turn, seemed to confirm the stereotype held by blacks about bigotry among whites.

The result is an uneasy demarcation of power in Baltimore, Atlanta and many other places: Blacks control the elected positions and head many departments in the public sector, but they lack the economic clout to put their plans into action. Whites continue to wield the economic power, but they are forced to deal with a municipal government that seems to view them with suspicion and hostility.

Twenty-two years ago, Atlanta's corporate and civic leaders came together in an Action Forum with the intention of addressing their city's economic development without flinching from the race issue. Now, Mr. Ward and another member of the Atlanta Action Forum, Michael Trotter, are urging their counterparts in other cities to deal with the problem with equal frankness.

"We found you have to have a coalition to accomplish anything," said Mr. Trotter. "When government switched from white control to black control, there was a great fear that blacks would not behave responsibly. Those fears were groundless."

In national surveys, Atlanta consistently ranks among the nation's top 10 cities in business climate, and it ranks high on the livability scale for families. But Baltimore also does fairly well on those surveys.

Atlanta, though, is perceived among black professionals to offer a very congenial environment for career development. Baltimore, according to at least one survey, is perceived by blacks as a very hostile and difficult place to pursue a career.

Inspired by Atlanta's example, the city's black and white corporate leaders leapt to their feet yesterday and pledged to start working together in racial harmony, to confront the race problem head-on.

Of course, corporate Baltimore has been making this pledge for nearly 30 years now. You don't confront a problem, guys, by pretending it isn't there.

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