Plenty of Reason to Blame Both Sides

COMMENT

February 27, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

It has been more than 30 years since Martin Luther King led the historic March on Washington. I can still hear his voice as he spoke about racial harmony and the day "when all God's children . . . will be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!' "

So long ago. So far to go.

I took Dr. King very seriously. I was young when he was murdered, but I never doubted how much he shaped my life. I am a beneficiary of his courage and, like all Americans, an heir to his legacy.

That is why I feel so pained that after all these years whites and blacks, as groups, remain unable to communicate effectively with one another.

A recent incident that would have been inconsequential had the issue of race not been raised has become a battleground in Howard County.

The parents of seven black middle school boys have squared off with the police department over an alleged theft of no more than $4. Dr. King would not have trifled with anything so frivolous. But that has stopped no one in this case.

For the record, the boys were walking home after a basketball game when they came upon a female acquaintance.

The boys said she gave them some money. The girl called 911 and reported she had been robbed.

Police came, detained the boys on the street, until they decided to charge two of them with theft.

Parents of the boys, who were worried when their sons had not come home on time, want to know why the youths were detained so long without the parents' being notified. (Parents say police detained the boys for two hours, police say only 40 minutes.)

Not getting a sufficient answer from police, the parents turned to the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which took up the charge.

Those are the hard, cold facts.

And here is the opinion: Both sides have badly overreacted, leaving in their wake some nasty stereotypes about blacks and the police. Try to say that you haven't asked yourself any of the following questions:

* Are the black parents coddling their sons, teaching them that there are no consequences so long as they can point to some injustice, real or imagined, that has been inflicted upon them?

* Isn't this just another example of how a victim mentality is pervasive in the black community and leads to the creation of a double standard for blacks and whites? (Remember, Martin Luther King fought for a level playing field, not a divided society.)

* Weren't the police just as guilty of a double standard, knowing full well they would not have detained a group of white youngsters so long without notifying their families?

* Isn't it inevitable in this still racist society that white police officers would be biased against young black males?

There exists room for recrimination on both sides.

The police were obviously at fault for failing to notify the parents. What did they think: that black families are less concerned when their children don't arrive home on time? Did they think they had stumbled upon some hard-core group of hoodlums, stealing quarters out of classmates' lunch boxes? And why in the world did they refuse to give out the names of the two officers involved in this piddling matter? Officers' names are routinely made public record in much harsher matters.

After considerable wrangling, I was able to get the names of the officers involved in the Howard case. They are Steven Lampe and Andrea Quinto.

Officer Lampe is a new recruit, which might explain his mistake. The same can not be said for the more seasoned Officer Quinto.

As for the parents, I can only hope that they have not sent the wrong message to their offspring. I have my doubts, only because they chose to go to the press rather than handle the matter quietly.

Not that there aren't times when the best avenue is the local paper. There is racism in America. And yes, sometimes young black males are unfairly singled out.

But this is the rub of being black in this country: We must still teach our children to function in society.

And part of that is finding the right balance between being cast as a victim and as someone who can persevere despite the odds.

Do we rally to our children's defense, focusing less on the alleged victim -- the girl who said her money was stolen -- and more on the perceived injustice inflicted by police?

Or do we use the moment to warn our kids about the company they keep, not to mention that what may seem like innocent adolescent hi-jinks can lead to serious trouble?

We have got to find the right answers to these questions or we will never reach the day when, as Dr. King once said, black children "will not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character."

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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