Jeering the Klan is not the end of fighting racism

November 01, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

By the time we got to Annapolis, the Ku Klux Klan had tucked the tails of their sheets between their legs and fled. The Klan showed up on Saturday, but we didn't arrive until Sunday, when they'd already gone somewhere else. Church, maybe. Although it's hard to imagine any house of God that would want these people in the congregation.

By all accounts, about 35 members of what is still called the Invincible Order of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan showed up, though they must have felt pretty vincible when they found themselves crushingly outnumbered by hundreds of people telling them to take a hike.

Most of the KKK members wore their traditional white sheets to courageously hide their identities. The counterdemonstrators wore their traditional emotions on their sleeves.

"This is 1994, we ain't talking racism no more," the racially mixed crowd of protesters chanted as they marched through downtown Annapolis, about a block from KKK members who'd gathered in the shadows of the State House.

It was a nice emotional purging for everybody who gathered to protest the Klan. It said, Yes, we have racial problems in this country, but we're still trying to work things out and you folks get in the way. It gave everybody a chance to declare, in vivid terms, that the Klan's views are destructive, divisive, hurtful and wrongheaded, and that we reject them.

But maybe it was a little too easy. We're so busy slapping each other on the back, so comfortable in our self-righteousness, that we duck the real issues. The KKK? Come on, these people are Neanderthals, spouting the verbal equivalent of ancient cave drawings.

The Klan's message is so primitive that civil rights organizations all over America should pay them money to stay in business, to show up every now and then as a way of further discrediting racism and reminding everybody just why the various civil rights laws had to be written in the first place.

By the time we got to Annapolis, not only was the Klan gone, but so were the politicians -- Parris Glendening, the Democratic candidate for governor, and Paul Rappaport, Ellen Sauerbrey's Republican running mate -- who'd very visibly joined the anti-Klan marchers.

At the City Dock, thousands strolled in glittery Sunday-afternoon sunshine. It was a racially mixed crowd, the kind Americans comfortably take for granted now. Nobody had to hold up a sign, the way they had on Saturday, urging, "Unity Through Diversity and Tolerance." On some levels, people in this state have learned to get along far better than the KKK would admit.

But the problems are more subtle now, and allowing ourselves to feel good because we momentarily stuck a fist in the face of people hiding under sheets doesn't get us very far.

A week ago, an appeals court struck down the University of Maryland's Benjamin Banneker Scholarship program. This brought about 150 black kids a year into a system that had found a variety of insidious ways to keep them out over the generations.

The court said it isn't fair to help black kids -- if it's at the expense of poor nonblack kids who deserve an education of their own. To many, this sounds pretty reasonable. But what about the historic denials of a college education for blacks? What about finally trying to equalize the score? What about bringing diversity to campuses? What about bringing blacks into the economic mainstream?

What the court said was: What about it?

Then there's the Moving to Opportunity program. Mostly, this will involve poor city blacks moving to racially mixed working-class county neighborhoods. The county people worry about city crime being transferred to their communities. It's a fair concern. But the city folks, eager to flee dangerous surroundings, say they're being stereotyped in advance. That's also a fair concern.

Then, a week ago, we had this Maryland Legislative Black Caucus report. It said racism is prevalent in state government. Critics said, in a system with 60,000 employees, there are going to be disputes without racism necessarily being at the core of it.

Is that so? It's sometimes not easy to tell. But those are the modern issues that we (and the current political candidates) need to address, and stop thinking we won a great victory over racism because Neanderthals like the KKK have momentarily been driven back into their caves.

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