The Young case widens chasm of black and white Mention of race pushes political story into a larger realm

'On two different planets'

Division reflected in communities, in vote by Senate

January 18, 1998|By This article was reported by Sun staff writers Dan Fesperman, Ivan Penn, Lisa Respers and Craig Timberg and written by Fesperman.

It would seem to be the simplest of stories. A politician gets caught making money in ways that he shouldn't, then his embarrassed colleagues vote to expel him.

But when the politician is black and the powers that oust him are mostly white, simple things can get complicated in a hurry.

Whether out of genuine anguish or political opportunism, supporters of ousted state Sen. Larry Young tapped into old, deep channels of black pain and mistrust when they rose to Young's defense last week by invoking the most divisive theme in American culture: race.

Valid or not as a factor in Young's downfall, the mere mention of the topic pushed his story into a larger realm where there are far more divisions than those of black and white. Opinions on Young are also partitioned according to neighborhood, income, age and education, making it tricky to sort out the various hurts and angers.

Among African-Americans, the Rev. John L. Wright, a former head of the Maryland NAACP, speaks for those at one end of the spectrum by defending Young in the tone of a holy crusade. Delivering a prayer through a megaphone to about 75 Young supporters gathered outside the State House on Wednesday, Wright said:

"We stand here on the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King Day. We stand here beside Senator Larry Young. . . . We stand as Daniel in the lion's den. We stand as Moses between Mount Sinai and Mount Nebo, and Pharaoh's army behind and the Red Sea in front of him. We stand. We stand as the Son that went before Calvary and got up the following Sunday. We stand. We will march. We will kneel in, we will sit in, and if we have to, we will be jailed in. . . . Let brother Larry walk strong and tall with his head up high. Let him stand with victory in his soul."

That brand of speechmaking made Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, more than a little uneasy, although he, too, opposed the Senate's vote of expulsion.

"By using the nomenclature of race rhetoric to suggest that this is a racial issue is a great dishonor to the process, and a great disservice has been done to the people of Maryland," Mfume, a former U.S. congressman from Maryland and member of the House ethics committee, said in an interview Friday. "This is not about race. This is about a perceived conflict of interest and the ++ integrity of a politician sworn to uphold the laws of this land."

But even the comments of someone as influential as Mfume couldn't put the topic back in the bag. By the time Mfume spoke Friday, whites were also talking about the matter in terms of black and white, and few were forgiving of either Young's misdeeds or his cries of injustice.

The most extreme reactions conveyed a flippant hostility, such as in the case of Bill Williams, a 77-year-old retired steel worker in Hampden. "Shoot him," Williams joked, while he and friend Red Buffington drank sodas at King's Pizza.

Buffington, a 76-year-old retired maintenance man, added: "All you hear nowadays is 'racist, racist.' They don't want equal rights. They want everything."

But Herman Klipa, 70, a retired Federal Aviation Administration inspector from Roland Park, said he understands the reaction, ,, even if he's saddened by it.

"The blacks have no one to turn to but themselves, and that's why they stick together," Klipa said. "It's an ingrained thing. It's a historical thing. I don't blame them. Hell, if I was black, I'd probably do the same thing."

All three men might be pleasantly surprised to find that several men of similar age, job background and economic status -- but of a different race -- would concur with their harsh view of Young.

Charles Alexander, 70, is a retired steel worker like Williams, but he is black. He sat on his usual bench in Mondawmin Mall on Thursday and talked politics with his friends. They rejected the idea that Young had been targeted because of his race.

"Consider the source," Alexander said. "The person who made it a racial issue is the person who is in trouble."

Part of the reason for the uproar, Alexander suggested, is Young's senatorial district is mostly made up of poor, undereducated people who don't fully grasp the seriousness of the allegations against him.

Hazards of generalizing

Alexander's comments illustrate how hazardous it can be trying to sum up the opinion of the "black community" by citing a few outspoken individuals who make their way onto television.

WBAL Radio morning talk-show host Allan Prell, who is white but draws a multiracial audience, got a similar lesson last week when the subject of Young came up. After several white callers decried the way African-Americans had let themselves be duped by Young, blacks began phoning to say, hey, not so fast.

"There have been lots of generalizations on both sides, and that's where a lot of problems arise," Prell said later.

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