Incident on a lonely road teaches a lesson about prejudice


November 09, 1994|By DAN RODRICKS

"There's one other thing I want to tell you," the woman said, "and I don't want you to think I'm prejudiced or anything. But these two men were black." The woman's name was Carol. She had just finished telling me a modern Good Samaritan tale that, frankly, was far from extraordinary in its detail, except for that last one -- the race of the men who helped her. That made the story a lot more profound, in light of two recent events: the Susan Smith case in South Carolina and yesterday's elections.

One night a couple of weeks ago, Carol was driving home alone from choir practice. She was on McDonough Road about 10 minutes away from her driveway in Owings Mills when, at 7:15 p.m., the car engine misfired and shut down. She maneuvered to the side of a dark stretch of road. She turned on the hazard lights. She unfolded a cardboard "Help" windshield cover, placed it in the rear window, locked the doors, then waited.

A few cars passed her. Then one stopped. The doors opened. In her rear-view mirror, Carol could see two men and a woman. They were young, in their early 20s. The men wore work clothes. They approached Carol at the driver's window. "I was afraid, so I only opened the window a crack," she says. "The young woman who was with them waved other cars around mine. The men said they were mechanics and they offered to look under the hood."

The men poked at various parts of the engine. This went on for 20 minutes. As the time passed, Carol started to feel less anxious. The two men seemed to know what they were doing. They appeared to be genuinely interested in helping her. Carol's fears started to subside. Still, she kept the car doors locked.

The men gave up. They could not determine the source of the car's problem. "Can we give you a ride?" one of the men offered.

Carol did not want to leave her car. The men understood and offered to call the police. They pushed her car farther off the road, returned to their car and drove away. In another 15 minutes, a Baltimore County police officer arrived and gave Carol a ride home.

"There's one other thing I want to tell you," Carol said to me, and that's when she mentioned the race of her helpers. "That's not why I called you," she said. "I just wanted to tell what happened to me and say thank you to those men, whose names I did not get."

"But you did mention their race," I said. "You must think it's important to the story."

"I'm not a prejudiced person, but I know that too often all we hear are the bad things," she said.

"About black men?" I asked. "Then you did want me to know the race of those men. It gave you all the more reason to call and report this."

Carol understood what I was saying. All the common fears of modern life are compounded and complicated by racial tension. At its root are old prejudices and stereotypes; in South Carolina, Susan Smith exploited them when she claimed that a black man had kidnapped Alex and Michael.

"I live in the city, I get around to a lot of neighborhoods, so I know better than to think that the black male is always the bad guy," a white real estate agent named Melvin Knight told The Sun the other day. "But if I was a younger person from a sheltered existence, like Harford County, and the only black people I knew were the ones I met on the 11 o'clock news, then I'd assume that all bad things are done by black males."

We've been building roads to the suburbs for years. But we haven't built any bridges.

And too many politicians are willing to stand by and see that those bridges are never built. Too many prefer the divide-and-conquer recipe for election. The 1994 campaign in Maryland symbolized the extent to which this state, the Baltimore metropolitan region in particular, still is polarized. And from Maryland to California, race does not simmer just below the surface of our lives; it rides the surface, like an oil slick.

In his nationally syndicated radio commentary on Monday, Rush Limbaugh said it was outrageous for "liberal journalists" to say these things, to insinuate that conservative politicians who propose cutting taxes are playing a race card, rallying white suburbanites against urban minorities and the politicians who stand up for them. Yet, in the same breath, he urged voters to support Republican candidates because of "the welfare state" created and perpetuated by Democrats. That was not offered as a secondary reason; "welfare" was offered as Limbaugh's primary reason. Never mind that welfare consumes a small percentage of federal spending, or that, for the first time since the screaming began, politicians, led by a president who is a Democrat, actually have proposed welfare reforms.

Divide and conquer. And who wins?

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