Racism is ingrained, NAACP official says Government workers call Odoms' charges unfair, surprising

June 13, 1996|By A SUN STAFF WRITER

Two months after a black family's North Laurel home was ransacked and defaced with racial epithets, the president of the Howard County chapter of the NAACP called yesterday for an end to what he called "institutional racism" in the county.

Jenkins Odoms Jr. told reporters at the First Baptist Church of Guilford that racism is evident in county housing, employment, public safety and education practices.

"We're going to have to go back and hit the streets," said Odoms, joined by the Rev. John L. Wright, pastor of First Baptist, and the Rev. Robert A. F. Turner, head of the Howard County African-American Coalition, which represents 50 organizations countywide.

But county school, police and housing officials reacted sharply to those allegations, calling them unwarranted and surprising.

"It sounds like a blanket condemnation of the county, and I think that's absurd," said Leonard Vaughan, executive director of the county's housing commission. "If you make that kind of statement, you need some specifics."

Said Patti Caplan, school department spokeswoman: "Nobody is going to deny that stuff is happening [in the schools], but to say 'institutional racism' is somewhat a misrepresentation of what is happening here."

Blacks make up 11.8 percent of the population in Howard County. According to the Howard County Office of Human Rights, there have been 33 hate incidents of all types so far this year, compared with 54 throughout 1995 and 71 in 1994.

But Odoms said the county NAACP has received 98 complaints from blacks of racist treatment -- nearly triple the 35 it received all of last year. They include:

Police stopping black motorists who had not violated traffic laws.

A black male high school student suspended for five days after he was caught smoking a cigarette, while two white male students caught smoking marijuana were allowed to return to school the next day with their parents.

A black female teacher with more than 15 years of supervisory experience who allegedly was passed over for a promotion that was given to a white male teacher who had only two years of supervisory experience.

Some of those incidents reflect institutional racism, Odoms said.

In the area of education, for example, Odoms said that although African-American students represent only 15 percent of the school population, they account for 33 percent of the students suspended, and that a high number of black students are enrolled in special education.

"It is expected they will not be successful or learn," said Natalie Woodson, chairwoman of the local NAACP's education committee.

Odoms also said he met with county Police Chief James N.

Robey for 45 minutes in May to discuss several concerns -- a meeting a police spokesman says never took place.

Odoms said that a female officer stopped him a few months ago while he was driving his Chrysler New Yorker in Jessup, alleging he had expired tags. "First thing she saw was an African-American male," said Odoms, whose tags were not expired.

And in the area of housing, Odoms introduced a 32-year-old woman who said she has been harassed by white residents at a apartment complex in Columbia's Owen Brown village for four years.

Odoms called the experience of the woman, who asked not to be identified, "more devastating than the case in Laurel because of the mental torment" she has endured.

In the April 23 incident in North Laurel -- which James E. Henson Sr., the county human rights administrator, called "the worst hate crime" he has seen in Howard -- a family found its home vandalized, with racist graffiti spray-painted throughout.

County officials yesterday strongly rejected claims that blacks are systematically victimized by local police, schools and housing authorities.

Sgt. Glenn Hansen, a police spokesman, said Robey was "surprised and disappointed" by Odoms' comments.

The police chief "thought he had a professional working relationship with the NAACP and that he was unaware of any concerns about institutional racism or African-American males being stopped without a violation occurring."

Though he did not have statistics on the number of black police officers on the force, Hansen said one-third of the 25 people in the current police academy are black and one-third are female.

"We are making great efforts to represent our community," Hansen said.

Caplan, the school spokeswoman, said the school system had not received details of the incidents referred to by Odoms and could not respond specifically. But she said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey has worked cooperatively with the NAACP to establish procedures to address complaints by black parents and students -- a process that didn't exist 10 years ago, she said.

And Vaughan, the housing commission chief, said that while there may be isolated problems in the county's housing picture, the ability of most clients to find housing undercuts claims of institutional racism.

Odoms was undaunted by questions regarding the specifics of his charges. He said yesterday's lack of detail was intended to protect those involved and that the NAACP is monitoring the cases.

"I know I have all the evidence," said Odoms. "I have the written complaints and I can back it up in court."

Pub Date: 6/13/96

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