Racism in paradise? NAACP leader's charges are vague, but message shouldn't be ignored.

June 18, 1996

RARE AMONG SUBURBS, Howard County is perceived as a place that embraces many cultures. The creation of Columbia with diversity as a key tenet helped give rise to that perception. That image was bolstered over the years by policies and goals drafted by community institutions to protect people of all backgrounds.

Once in a while, though, come reminders of racial discontent. The vandalism of a black family's townhouse in North Laurel was one such incident. The governor's push to add a black judge to the Circuit Court caused an unsettling backlash, too.

Last week, the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People decried "institutional racism" in Howard, asserting that bias still infects housing, employment, public safety and education. Without offering specific examples of institutional racism, Jenkins Odoms unfortunately provided little substance on which to base his sweeping indictment of virtually every public institution in the county. More details are needed if corrective action is to take place.

But lacking a laundry list of overt acts of bigotry does not mean Mr. Odoms' criticisms should be summarily discounted. In fact, racism today is often more subtle than a burning cross or a spray-painted epithet, but just as destructive. Mr. Odoms' organization hears a steady drumbeat of bias complaints against employers, landlords and police officers.

The county's NAACP chapter has received 98 accusations of racist treatment this year, compared with 35 all last year. Those figures differ from a more stable rate documented by the Howard County Office of Human Rights. It has recorded 33 hate incidents so far this year after 54 in 1995 and 71 in 1994. Mr. Odoms says the NAACP's numbers are rising more rapidly because victims of bias realize the organization is becoming stronger after suffering the ripple effects of problems at its national headquarters in Baltimore in recent years.

Critics may want to brush off Mr. Odoms' remarks as too vague to merit serious consideration. That would be a mistake. He reminds us that Howard is not immune to racial problems, and that constant vigilance is needed to ensure that all members of the community are treated fairly and with decency.

Pub Date: 6/18/96

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