Racism casts broad shadow County can't shake divisions despite push for tolerance

'Still have our problems'

Human rights groups admit their presence is too low-profile

July 21, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Howard County's "worst hate crime" in recent memory may have proved to be a fraud, but it still illustrates how the county's struggle with racism has not gone away.

Howard police say a North Laurel woman now admits staging the April racial attack to collect insurance money. But the community's unquestioning outpouring of support for the alleged victim suggests that residents -- while surprised by the incident's apparent viciousness -- have little trouble believing that racial divisions exist in the county.

Few blacks hold elected office in Howard. Disproportionate numbers of black students are suspended from the county schools and classified as low-performing. Hate-bias crimes -- though not as lurid as the alleged North Laurel hoax -- continue to occur at an alarming rate.

And many in Howard seem to have lost the activist spirit of racial tolerance of the 1970s, say black Howard leaders and residents.

"We're making progress, but we still have our problems in this community," says James E. Henson Sr., administrator of the county's Office of Human Rights. "We've got a long way to go before we become the utopia that people are seeking."

Henson's office and Howard's Human Rights Commission are charged with leading the countywide battle against discrimination -- as both enforcers of local human rights laws and promoters of community tolerance.

That office and the commission might seem unnecessary in Howard, a county that is about 12 percent black and considered by many to be the most racially tolerant in Maryland.

Yet the most frequent criticism leveled against the agencies is that their presence is too low-profile -- a criticism echoed by members of the commission and the office.

In interviews about local race relations, few county residents mention either the office or the commission as an entity that can help promote tolerance.

"We definitely need to be out there more," says Jan Nyquist, chairwoman of the 11-member commission. "One of the things we need to do is be more active and visible in the county, to promote more discussions about race relations and other human rights issues."

Struggle with apathy

Part of the problem facing the county's human rights groups is apathy toward everything but the most obvious signs of prejudice, they say.

Howard residents are quick to rally around victims of major hate-bias crimes. They provided comfort and donations to the North Laurel woman accused of staging the hate crime and to the Russian Jewish immigrants whose shop in Columbia's Harper's Choice village center was defaced with swastikas two years ago.

Yet when the president of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held a news conference to denounce what he called "institutional racism" -- in the county's housing, employment, public safety and education -- leaders in those fields dismissed his complaints as being overblown.

"People not on the receiving end of racism perceive it differently," says Robert A. F. Turner, head of the Howard County African-American Coalition, which represents 50 county organizations. "They're able to relate to the specific victim, but they don't pay attention to or understand the broader concerns."

Not dealing with differences

Jean Toomer, chairwoman of the county's Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center and former head of the human rights office, agrees: "There's always an outpouring of support when something big occurs. But this community has never, in my opinion, really dealt with the cultural differences that are part of day-to-day life."

Those broader -- often more subtle -- differences are what black residents such as Jatufe Shushumba say are part of their daily lives.

Shushumba says she fought with the school system to ensure that her daughter was placed in the appropriate classes when they moved to Columbia's Wilde Lake village five years ago.

"There's an everyday struggle in the county," says Shushumba, a software trainer and business consultant who also has worked as an academic monitor in the school system's program to improve black students' achievement. "Racism is part of the system. In many ways, it's less here than elsewhere, but it's definitely present."

What Shushumba, the NAACP and others often are talking about is "effectual discrimination," says Robert S. Ardinger, owner of a Howard-based fair training and housing consulting firm who has been outspoken about the need for the county to do more in fighting discrimination.

"Few people in the county intend to discriminate, but the unintentional effect of their actions may be discriminatory," he says.

Some tangible evidence of overt discrimination exists. The number of hate-bias reports investigated by Howard police this year -- 42 through the first six months -- are on a pace to match the record 84 reports of 1992. They range from graffito sprayed on schools to anonymous letters and slurs shouted from cars.

Complaints persist

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