Harmony, healing and hope Hate crime adds focus to discussion group on racial relations

April 30, 1996|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,SUN STAFF

It didn't take a hate crime in North Laurel last week to start a group of county residents talking about race, but the incident told them that a lot more talking is needed.

"We really have our work cut out," said James Henson, administrator of the county's Office of Human Rights, as he entered a room in the George Howard Building for a weekly discussion about race relations.

Mr. Henson had spent most of one day last week investigating what he called the worst hate crime he has seen in Howard County -- a black family's home was vandalized and spray-painted with racist graffiti.

He sat last week around a table in the George Howard Building with fellow "study circle" members, who are part of a nationwide project to deal with racism by talking about it. The faces around him were black, white and brown. They come each Wednesday to confront each other's prejudices -- and their own.

The group's sessions began in earnest six weeks ago, and participants are ready to embark on the next part of their plan -- to create other study groups and spread the concept like a pyramid scheme for racial harmony. Ultimately, goes the hope, almost everyone in Howard County will come together in small groups and engage in friendly dialogue -- not debates. Wednesday, Mr. Henson told study circle members about the incident in North Laurel the day before. He told them that vandals had sprayed racial epithets on the walls of a black family's home in the 9200 block of Traders Crossing and destroyed nearly all of their possessions.

Stunned by violence

The group was stunned that such an event had happened in a county widely considered to be among the most progressive in the state. They wondered aloud how anyone could possibly stamp out racist attitudes in the most extreme of minds.

"How does this group have an impact on the type of people who would do something like that?" asked Janice D. Rattley, a 25-year Columbia resident.

Ms. Rattley, a retired administrator at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban development, said most group members are moderates who don't reflect the wide range of racial attitudes in Howard County.

If prejudice could be measured on a scale of one to 10, she said, all the study circle members probably would be "under 5." She said the hatemongers who wreaked destruction in North Laurel are a different matter.

"You're talking about the people who are up here," she said, moving her right hand on the imaginary scale to the place where 10 would be. "How the hell do we get to these people?"

'Beyond the pale'

One member wondered whether people who would commit a hate crime should even be allowed to participate in a study circle. She feared they could cause more harm than good, like a bad daytime talk show gone worse.

"Some people are just beyond the pale," said Barbara Russell, a legislative assistant for the Howard County Council.

But George Martin, a deacon at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Columbia, said he wouldn't want to exclude anyone.

"It might be that all the person needs is a little nudge" to listen to other viewpoints, said Mr. Martin, a retired mathematician at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory.

Promoting dialogue

The study circle concept originated about six years ago after the strife in Los Angeles that followed the verdict in the first Rodney King beating case.

Martha McCoy, executive director of the nonprofit Study Circles Resource Center in Connecticut, said a private foundation sponsored the idea to promote discussions among people from diverse backgrounds.

Ms. McCoy said the first community to embrace the idea was Lima, a city of about 47,000 in northwestern Ohio. The groups have sprouted in 20 communities, including Cleveland, Los Angeles and Peoria, Ill.

After learning of the concept last year, Mr. Henson pitched the idea to County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who approved.

On Nov. 20, Mr. Henson convened six people for Howard County's first meeting on study circles, hand-picking the participants to put together a racially diverse group.

Fighting hatred

Ellicott City resident Kenneth Lee, former vice president of the Korean Society of Maryland, attended the second meeting when he was battling his own feelings of hate.

Mr. Lee's son, Joel, a 21-year-old Towson State University student, was slain in Baltimore three years ago. A black man tried for the murder was acquitted in the high-profile case, in which Mr. Lee and others agonized that a mostly black jury would not convict a black man for the death of an Asian-American.

The jury arrived at the decision "because my son is Korean-American and he [the defendant] is African-American," Mr. Lee said at the time.

Last week, he said he didn't want to let his tragedy shape his view of an entire race. "I thought it was a good idea, because at the time I had some prejudices myself," he said.

After attending several meetings, he said, he realized that everyone has prejudices that need to be addressed.

"There's a lot of racism among the whites; there is a lot of racism among African-Americans. Same thing with Koreans," Mr. Lee said.

"We can't totally eliminate it, but we can reduce a lot of prejudices."

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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