Color-blind or color-bind?

April 03, 1995

Sometimes an eight-cent bumper sticker can speak volumes.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has been distributing a bumper sticker for his re-election bid in the tri-colors long associated with African-American pride. "Mayor Schmoke Makes Us Proud," it reads.

Politicians have always made unique appeals to their own and to other ethnic groups. The Italians are awash in blarney on St. Patrick's Day and gentile pols stress pro-Israel positions in the Jewish neighborhoods. So what's wrong with Baltimore's first elected black mayor reaching out to voters in this majority black city? Nothing. But to dismiss that move as meaningless is to believe a political campaign is a hodgepodge of happenstance.

Mr. Schmoke and his political seer, Larry S. Gibson, knew precisely their target when they employed the red, black and green that has been a symbol of black pride since a flag with those colors was unveiled at an international convention in 1920. If whites are unattuned to the message, the black community certainly isn't. Pass any street vendor selling items with African slogans, or any sneaker store, and you'll see apparel in those colors to attract a young, black clientele.

For Mr. Gibson to suggest the Schmoke camp came up with those hues out of thin air, and that they represent something else, says either that Mr. Gibson thinks everyone's gullible or that he has some concern about his boss' re-election. The mayor has a formidable primary opponent in City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, whose populist appeal fairly well transcends race. In fact, Mr. Schmoke's broad "color blind" appeal hasn't been reciprocated by white voters, whose support for him has slipped over the years. Ms. Clarke is also passing out stickers that appeal to the city's various ethnic groups, but her response -- "It's a diverse city" -- seems more honest than the Schmoke camp's indignation about the matter.

The other reason the mayor's African appeal seems so jarring is because it comes from Kurt Schmoke, who last time out campaigned on a jauntily confident, record-oriented, all-inclusive "Get aboard the Schmoke train" theme.

Kurt Schmoke has not been a racially divisive politician. He's well-regarded personally. He comes from the mainstream integrationist mold of former mayors David Dinkins of New York and W. Wilson Goode of Philadelphia. When a street politician like Washington Mayor Marion Barry dons African kente cloth and invokes black pride to bolster his political strength, no one bats an eye. But when Ivy-educated Kurt Schmoke acts even marginally in that vein, it raises eyebrows -- especially about his possible vulnerablity in the fall election.

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