Avoiding the next race riot

November 21, 1996|By Clarence Page

PITTSBURGH -- One day the editors of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette were having their usual morning news meeting when they noticed something curious.

''Every one of the major stories of the day was related, in one way or another, to race,'' Madelyne ''Maddy'' Ross, the newspaper's managing editor, recalls.

The biggest powder keg was the case of Jonny Gammage, 31, who investigators say suffocated in a scuffle with officers during a traffic stop. The three officers were charged with involuntary manslaughter.

The Gammage case attracted more national attention than most police-brutality cases do, partly because the victim was the cousin of Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Ray Seals, who owned the Jaguar Mr. Gammage was driving at the time he was stopped. Jesse Jackson, among others, described the death as a lynching.

Another dust-up

There also was the question of whether two white foster parents should be allowed to adopt the mixed-race child they had been raising. There was a proposal to tear down a large public-housing complex in a town where one-third of the black population lives in public housing.

There was yet another dust-up over school busing to achieve or maintain racial desegregation. There was a move by the state to dismantle its affirmative-action hiring rules.

''It was a seminal moment,'' Ms. Ross recalls. ''Suddenly all of us realized that this issue, race, if it ever had left, was obviously back with us in a really big way.''

I have a similar feeling these days. As I write, an all-white jury has acquitted a white police officer in the Gammage case. Two others were freed earlier after a mistrial and are expected to be tried again next year.

In St. Petersburg, Florida, a police officer was shot hours after a grand jury refused to indict a white officer in the slaying of a black motorist, which touched off street riots there last month.

Civil-liberties lawyers in Maryland say state troopers continue to unfairly target black motorists for drug searches two years after agreeing to stop.

The student newspaper at Virginia's George Mason University published a column by a student, John Paul Wright, which speculated as to whether African-American rioters were capable reason or whether they should be ''chained down.''

George Mason's student-government president, Kirby Reed, said sensibly that he was glad the piece was published because otherwise ''many people would believe there is no racism at the university.''

Quite so. The campus is not alone. Since the heady, hard-fought days of rapid racial progress in the late '50s and early '60s, white Americans have been increasingly reluctant to acknowledge that racism is still a problem, while black Americans have been just as reluctant to acknowledge we have made any progress at all.

I came to Pittsburgh at the invitation of the Pittsburgh Foundation for a day of exploring local race and class relations with local government, business, professional, civic and civil-rights leaders at the University of Pittsburgh campus.

Difficulty of candor

At least one white businessman admitted he was having difficulty speaking candidly for fear of being misunderstood. He spoke for quite a few others at the huge round table.

Finally, a local black leader voiced the question others dared not say, ''Are we going to have a riot?''

It is not just the residents of St. Petersburg or Pittsburgh who ask that question these days. A more urgent question is, why do so many communities have to have a riot before they want to acknowledge their problems?

Most urban riots since the mid-1960s began with police misconduct. But the riot is seldom about the episode of misconduct. Usually it is about a host of issues that have been boiling up in local minority communities without being addressed or even acknowledged by the majority community.

Breaking the denial conspiracy, Ms. Ross and the Post-Gazette decided to do what newspapers do best. They published an investigative series on local racial progress, or lack of it.

I was most taken by the results of a polling question the newspaper asked: ''Where do you get most of your information about members of the opposite race?''

More than half of whites in the Pittsburgh area (53 percent) answered ''The media,'' compared to less than a third of blacks (31 percent).

The media? No wonder white folks are so scared of us, I thought.

And what is true in Pittsburgh is true for most of America, I fear. More white folks get their impressions of black folks through the media more than through personal contact.

Pittsburgh, I detect, is on its way to racial recovery, as long as it continues to work at it. The same might be said for the rest of America. First we must talk. Then we must act.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/21/96

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