Hold the race card Strong, wise leadership can overcome prejudices that have torn the area.

January 07, 1998

RACE HAS NOTHING TO DO with the Baltimore area's reticence to forge regional solutions -- and everything to do with it.

It is the unspoken but first thought that comes across the minds of many when the conversation is poverty, crime, education or health -- all areas where the city could use help from its neighbors.

Because the affluent suburbs are largely white, the condition of the predominantly black city appears related to race when it's really about wealth. That point is made by strife within the suburban counties that pit richer vs. poorer communities. Baltimore has too many poor people. Their poverty creates problems that are expensive to solve. But separating race from class has proved difficult for those advocating regional solutions.

Since Colonial times, race relations in Baltimore have been different than in cities farther from the Mason-Dixon Line. Slavery never took root here, as it did in Richmond and other Southern cities. There were slaves in Baltimore, but by 1810 the number of free blacks exceeded the slave population. However, Maryland was not a free state, as was neighboring Pennsylvania. That meant every African American in Baltimore -- slave and free -- was viewed through the lens of a system that considered all black persons inferior.

Many blacks today believe vestiges of that prejudice are apparent each time modern housing officials have tried to disperse some of Baltimore's poor among suburban counties. The race card has been played on the housing issue from George P. Mahoney's run for governor in 1966 under the slogan, "Your Home is Your Castle--Protect It," to ferocious opposition to the federal Moving to Opportunity program in 1994-95.

Officials who play on the fears of people rather than stand up for what is right have been a huge obstacle to regional cooperation.

One offender has been 2nd District Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He bolstered his political future by fighting a 1996 court agreement to break up the concentration in the city housing for the poor.

Mr. Ehrlich added a patina of urbane sophistication to the same reactionary outfit worn proudly for so long by Baltimore County Council member Louis L. DePazzo. But what sounded like honesty coming from Mr. DePazzo's lips reeked of opportunism flowing from Mr. Ehrlich's mouth. Both make it hard for other politicians to openly cooperate with the city.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke also received just criticism for exacerbating racial strain by his blatant appeal for the votes of fellow African Americans in his re-election campaign of 1995.

Getting beyond race is not easy, but there are encouraging signs. The Baltimore Metropolitan Council -- which includes the city and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties -- this year finally agreed that race relations is an issue it should tackle. Police departments are also coordinating crime-fighting strategies -- a vast improvement from the days when criminals could lose police in a car chase simply by crossing into the next county.

Education may be the next issue where common interests will dictate a regional approach. Problems shared by city and suburban school systems include discipline, truancy and drug abuse.

There was strong resistance to last year's agreement to provides $250 million over five years to the Baltimore City school system in exchange for an overhaul of its administration. The city-suburban coalition that helped craft that victory in the legislature showed recognition that the performance of Baltimore schools creates enormous ripples. They undulate in growth patterns as parents of school-age children leave the city and in the broad social costs of young people ill-equipped to join the work force.

Regional cooperation depends on having courageous persons in political office who know their re-election is not the most important issue facing Maryland.

We need elected leaders who, bring us together rather than bait us into the racial traps of the past.

Pub Date: 1/07/98

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