Candidates wise to put race issue behind them

August 12, 1999|By Michael Olesker

SOME PEOPLE get it. Carl Stokes, for example, and Martin O'Malley, too. And legislators such as Clarence Blount and Jim Campbell and Tony Fulton who stand on one side of the street, and those such as Pete Rawlings and Joan Carter Conway standing on the other, but not so far away that they can't hear echoes of each other's heartbeats in the midst of political struggle.

And some people don't get it. Julius Henson, for example, and Nathaniel McFadden, too. Henson tried to turn this mayoral campaign into the slummy revival of 1995. McFadden, unless somebody chills him, might do it yet.

Do we have to go over the ground rules again? The city goes nowhere if we're still choosing up sides by skin color. That doesn't mean black people can't support black candidates, or white people support white candidates. It just means we have to look deeper than color, to a place called conscience, and choose our political leaders there.

Julius Henson doesn't realize this, and has therefore been banished by Lawrence Bell, who finds his campaign in free-fall and belatedly attempts to discover his true self, the gentleman self, the self that once decried the divisiveness of the last mayoral campaign and talked of trying to heal old racial wounds.

Thus, on Tuesday outside City Hall, we could hear the endorsement of Carl Stokes minus the braying of bullies. Three cheers for simple civility. And for Sen. Clarence Blount, with as clear a conscience as anyone in government, declaring that this city "must have unity ... racial groups, different neighborhoods, black and white and every other color."

Such language was the precise thrust of Del. Pete Rawlings' attempted remarks of Aug. 5, when he was shouted down by the cries of Bell-Henson demonstrators: "We do not back the best black candidate," Rawlings tried to say, as he announced endorsement of Martin O'Malley. "We do not endorse the best white candidate. We endorse the best candidate."

It is Neanderthalism, and an act of community self-destruction, to proceed any other way. Thus we have those such as Rawlings and Sen. Joan Carter Conway making not only a political statement but a gesture of courage and statesmanship in endorsing O'Malley, setting an example that racial divisions must be put in their place.

Thus, too, we have Blount talking of racial unity, and the white Del. Jim Campbell standing by his side for Carl Stokes, and Del. Tony Fulton also there, talking of "an end to the divisiveness."

Which, unfortunately, was not where it ended. At the Stokes rally, there was also the voice of Nathaniel McFadden, the state senator out of East Baltimore who seemed to speak from his own private zip code.

He launched into some business that embarrassed everybody who has two brain cells to rub together. The city is 202 years old, said McFadden, and white people have held the job of mayor for 189 of those years and black people only 13 years, and this is the reason Carl Stokes must be elected.

I give Stokes the dignity of not asking him if he agrees with this simple-mindedness. Stokes is too good a man, too smart and too sensitive, to buy into it or have to explain it away. He runs on his merits, not his color. We vote for the candidate who leads the entire city now, whoever that person is; we do not attempt to balance racial arithmetic for its own sake.

In the course of all campaigns, those running for office have to make peace with those who represent little more than votes. Bell did it with Henson, but finally moved him aside. The least Stokes can do, for his own sake and the city's, is to give McFadden a few civics lessons and tell him to clam up.

It isn't about race. It's about making currently unlivable pieces of this city livable again. It's about a public school system, overwhelmingly black, where the kids have outdated textbooks and not enough computers and overwhelmed teachers, and leave school in midafternoon with no place safe where they can go.

And at the end of their years of schooling, when they look for jobs, they find themselves not only undereducated but cut off from any sense that they live in a community with whites as well as blacks. And they discover that most of the businesses are owned by whites, and most of the jobs, while there are political leaders still practicing the rhetoric of this particular skin color vs. that one.

To whose benefit?

Not the kids'.

So a moment of grace arrives. The community elders, those who get it, those who understand the destructiveness of the past, ask us to look beyond skin. And those who don't get it -- well, one has now been banished to political Siberia. And the other should just go stand in a corner until peace comes upon him.

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