IN HIS brilliant novel, "The Invisible Man," Ralph Ellison angrily exhorted, "We are here, white people! Look at us! See us! Appreciate us! Be aware of us! And if your hearts grant permission, relate to us."
That appeal is as poignant today as it was when it was written in 1947. Maybe more so now. I thought about it as I followed the sad saga of Larry Young, the former state senator who was kicked out of the Maryland General Assembly on corruption charges. The case also reminded me of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the late New York City congressman who was expelled by his colleagues some three decades ago over ethics accusations.
His Harlem constituents defied the congressional vote and returned Powell to Washington. The Supreme Court upheld their decision: It was not up to Congress to determine who would represent Harlem residents.
Apparently, Maryland will soon face a similar situation. Larry Young seems ready to run again for his old seat, and, presumably, will easily win re-election and will return to the legislature, if he can manage to stay out of prison. That development represents yet another scene in the real-life drama of politics in black and white. The mere fact that he will run is seen as a crisis of moral proportion to a lot of whites; no such thing, many blacks say, we will vote for whomever we desire, especially if it irritates you white folks. Not a great rationale for voting, but entirely explainable, as if citizens have to justify their ballot.
Or, as Chuck Stone, the journalist, educator and aide to Powell related in his book, "Tell It Like It Is," one woman said of the congressman, "He may be a rogue, but he's my rogue." Such in-your-face politics evident even then is more prominent nowadays. The Larry Young case, more Norman Lear than King Lear, nevertheless is only the tip of a more serious problem, and is most significant in what it indicates about race relations in Maryland and the nation.
Most obvious is the huge gap in thinking between whites and African-Americans. As on a wealth of issues, past and present: the O.J. Simpson trials, the Rodney King beating, affirmative action, crime and the justice system, housing, education, joblessness, effects of slavery, Jim Crow and racial discrimination. On almost every topic, the differences are striking. For example, studies (echoed by a few books) have shown that many whites believe that racism is no longer a major problem in this country, contrary to how a majority of blacks feel.
Whites never understood black support of the O.J. Simpson verdict. Actually, there is misunderstanding there: Most African-Americans I talked to did not support O.J. Simpson (many believe he did it), but they were more willing to accept the jury's decision and move on, perhaps because they believed the verdict defied a criminal justice system they deem generally unfair to nonwhites. Clearly, some blacks back Larry Young because so many whites do not. As Malcolm X said, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
The white media
The Larry Young case is more than simple guilt or innocence on ethics and corruption charges. It mirrors ourselves and relationships between the races, how we regard and respect each other, or do not. Once again, some blacks believe -- genuinely or demagogically -- that white media are out to get black leaders. The Schmoke administration's charges of racism against a federal investigation into the city's housing programs is another example; the accusation is made at the national level by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and others.
The case is an example of how we shout insults angrily past each other rather than engage in real dialogue; and maybe we have to raise our voices and scream to get each other's attention before we can talk seriously, but when does the shouting end and the substance begin? The case is also an indication of how dug in we all are, which hinders reasonable and civil discourse.
It is a fact that, while there has been tremendous progress in the past 30 years, nonwhites remain rather marginal players in the power game that is the essence of America. Look at the pictures in the business pages of local and national publications, and at the powerful politicians on the front page of daily newspapers to get an idea of what nonwhites have to contend with. With few notable exceptions, those making the big bucks and the major decisions are white.
So when the system goes after the Larry Youngs and Adam Clayton Powells and the Marion Barrys, it prompts an automatic scroll in the minds of many to roll up the numerous present and historical racial abuses. The act, the process, seems confusing and unbelievable to many whites -- and to a lot of nonwhites as well. But all the people who believe it are not paranoid.
The matter can be resolved in two ways: by putting Larry Young in prison so he cannot represent the 44th District (Marion Barry, too, was imprisoned, and later re-elected. Larry Young for mayor?), or by presenting real solutions to the concerns and problems of the people of the 44th District. Unfortunately, too many people find it easier to deal with him than them, except that we're only prolonging the agony.
Paul Delaney is a Baltimore writer.
Pub Date: 6/14/98