Interracial gathering tries for fresh look at race Organizers hope session begins five-year effort

March 19, 1997|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

Social worker Sean O'Halloran says he's "bone-weary" of racial stereotypes. He feels them gnawing away at trust every day as he investigates child-abuse cases in Harford County.

Last night, O'Halloran, 42, of Timonium joined more than 400 other area residents at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland to make a start at peeling away racial labels.

The interracial gathering of residents responded to "A Call to Community: An Honest Conversation about Race, Reconciliation and Responsibility," an effort to get the Baltimore metropolitan area talking about what divides Americans.

"I think racism is killing our country," O'Halloran said. "It poisons everything we do, every problem we try to solve. Everything gets seen through the lens of race, and it distorts everything."

Last night's event -- a combination pep rally and planning session -- began what is hoped will be five years of small-group discussions on race, with participants from across the Baltimore metropolitan area. It was organized by Interfaith Action for Racial Justice, a Baltimore nonprofit group, and sponsored by more than 80 church, community, school and civic groups.

"Study circles" -- interracial groups of 10 to 15 people who meet for six, two-hour sessions -- have begun in dozens of communities nationwide in the 1990s as residents have sought

TC fresh approach to difficult issues such as race relations, education and crime. Participants in last night's session heard words of encouragement, enjoyed dancers from the Baltimore American Indian Center and jazz musicians from Dunbar High School and got a taste of study circles by forming small groups for a few minutes to discuss the topic: What is one important way in which your race has had an impact on your life?

Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, gave a 15-minute motivational speech, urging participants to risk talking about their real fears and to accept that "any such dialogue is going to be painful somewhere along the way."

Mfume criticized Richard T. Yates, president of the Carroll County commissioners, for declining to endorse the initiative and saying he doesn't believe Carroll has a racial problem. Political leaders of Baltimore and Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties have made endorsements.

"Racial reconciliation is a matter for all of us all of the time with all the energy we have," Mfume said.

Lisa Countess, who teaches ancient history and Latin at Friends School, and Karen Birdsong, a school librarian, attended the event together. Countess is black and Birdsong white, but both agreed that talking about race isn't easy.

"I don't ever want to offend anybody; I'm always afraid I will say something offensive and that causes the [racial] gulf to widen," Birdsong said.

Race "impacts the way you view other people," Countess said. "It's difficult to divorce yourself from your background to approach other people without preconceptions."

Interfaith Action hopes to involve more than 1,000 residents in the discussions eventually.

The Baltimore effort is unusual in that it aims to create a metropolitan discussion across the racial divide. Two-thirds of the area's 656,000 blacks live in the city, a legacy of decades of residential segregation. While the city is 63 percent African-American, no suburban county is more than 14 percent black.

"It's grass roots, it's long term, it's metropolitan areawide, it's a conversation that leads to action," said John C. Springer, Interfaith Action's executive director. "We are not here for cheap talk."

Pub Date: 3/19/97

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