Dismantling race barriers for sake of 'our children'

August 24, 1999|By Michael Olesker

THE conversation was supposed to be political, so naturally, the way things are, it turned to race. It started with Catonsville, and veered to the campaign for mayor of Baltimore, and the words rumbled up from the center of Rep. Elijah Cummings' chest like a shifting of the Earth.

"I've reached that point in my life," he declared, "where there are things that matter more than the next election."

There was talk that Cummings might endorse one of the candidates in this mayoral election. He said he needed to ponder it for a while. There was talk of private polling. He said he hadn't seen any, but said some things matter more than polls. And then he mentioned Catonsville.

"A Boy Scout meeting," said Cummings. "And it's part of my district, and I represent these folks, and it's important that they see that I care about them."

He mentioned a comfort level, as well: the black congressman and his white Catonsville constituents getting to know each other. So he went to this meeting and they asked him to give a little speech, and Cummings talked about these Boy Scouts and the good things they were doing with their lives. He called them "our children." We feel such pride in "our children," he said. We have such hopes for "our children."

"And these two white ladies came up to me afterwards," Cummings was saying now, "and I'm telling you there were tears in their eyes. Just from this simple connection, from not making a distinction between one group of children and another group of children, it touched them."

The conversation with Cummings was Friday afternoon, at the end of a week in which racial distinctions were becoming clear, and sometimes troubling. A new NAACP poll had been released, in which 50 percent of young adults said racial separation in America is all right "as long as everyone has equal opportunity."

There were reports in this newspaper detailing dramatic racial changes in some of the elementary schools in Columbia, where Jim Rouse envisioned a harmonious, racially mixed community.

As The Sun's Larry Carson reported, white elementary school enrollments in Columbia's oldest neighborhoods have dropped sharply over the past decade. And, while blacks make up roughly 16 percent of Howard County's school population, eight elementary schools in Columbia are 35.5 percent to 57.4 percent black -- nearly double the range in 1990.

Years ago, in a brief moment in the Baltimore experience where there seemed to be hope of racially integrated public schools, Cummings attended City College. And now he was remembering those years, and why the racial mix was so important.

"I had never been with so many white kids before City," he said, "and to see how hard everybody was trying to get along. Man, we would have done anything for each other."

And then Cummings mentioned important white teachers, and a white man in South Baltimore who owned a store where Cummings worked through high school, and how this man would send him $50 from time to time in college, "just to help out," and how much all of this meant to him through the years.

And then, after a pause, Cummings said sadly, "But I guess all of this sounds kind of corny today, doesn't it?"

If it does, then we're all in trouble. In the city, the public schools are 12.2 percent white. There are, at all levels, black kids and white kids who never sit in a classroom and see a face with a color different from their own. For them, such people are simply The Other, and thus given to all distance, all suspicions and all assumed antagonisms human beings tend to ascribe to The Other, until those assumptions finally take root in their minds.

Which is why that NAACP report, where half the young adults find it acceptable to have racial separation with "equal opportunity." Separate but equal, wasn't that the phrase the Deep South used all those years it kept schools segregated?

Today, it's different. The laws call for integration, but the public mood tends toward indifference. Or veiled antagonism. Over the weekend, Lawrence Bell addressed a heavily African-African crowd at Druid Hill Park and told them to vote for him because "I look like you."

Then he added nonsense about City Council presidents always ascending to mayor, but unknown forces attempting to change the rules now that a black man was ready to ascend.

This will come as fascinating information to those such as Mary Pat Clarke and Wally Orlinsky, and to Clarence Du Burns, who made the move to mayor but quickly had it taken away from him.

What's disheartening, besides this willful misreading of history, is the transparent pitch for votes based on race. In private conversation, Bell used to decry such tactics. In this campaign, he's gotten high-profile support from some white union leaders. Which is the real Bell?

And then came the words of Elijah Cummings. He wasn't talking about Bell, or any other candidate. He didn't want to talk politics. There were things bigger than politics or polls, and one of them is race. Which, in America, is still bigger than anything.

Pub Date: 08/24/99

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