Racial Politics

March 31, 1995

If all politics is local -- as is commonly accepted -- nearly all politics in America is ethnic.

Of the rainbow of colors on the palette, blue and white may be the favorites of Sen. Paul Sarbanes and Rep. Benjamin Cardin. But those colors, found on their bumper stickers -- and in the flags of Greece and Israel -- also have ethnic symbolism. Just as red and white connect Sen. Barbara Mikulski to her Polish heritage.

So what are we to make of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's bumper stickers and their subliminal message through the use of red, green and black of the African liberation flag? Are they any HTC different from bumper stickers his challenger, Mary Pat Clarke, has printed in Greek, Italian, Spanish, Polish and Hebrew?

That these questions are even asked suggests how delicate Baltimore's racial harmony is below its surface calm. Yet it is one thing to try to promote racial or ethnic pride for political purposes -- which most candidates do in some fashion -- and quite another thing to try to foment racial distrust and suspicion.

There is an unquestionable racial dimension in the fight between Mr. Schmoke, Baltimore's first African-American mayor, and Mary Pat Clarke, the white City Council president who wants to become the first female chief executive. But rather than arguing about the candidates' racial merits, Baltimoreans ought to examine stereotypes and prejudices in everyday behavior.

Among these is the suggestion by Schmoke campaign manager Larry Gibson that racial politics led Ms. Clarke to have her father's recent burial handled by an African-American funeral home.

Did political calculations influence the decision? Probably. But what do you expect: She is a politician in a tough election campaign.

On the other hand, Ms. Clarke should be applauded for having chosen the services of the city's biggest undertaker. Despite its competitive prices, few whites even consider the firm -- because it happens to be owned by a black family. Even if it turns out that her reasons were not the right ones, Ms. Clarke struck a blow against race-based business decisions.

Too many Baltimoreans, white and black, still let racial considerations affect their everyday life. That's what is troubling about the city and its politics, not the colors of a bumper sticker.

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