Maryland students get in front of camera to discuss race relations in talk show

Cable program focuses on teen-agers' opinions

November 19, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

The television studio taping was a showcase of political correctness until 16-year-old Frank Camden from Catonsville High School joined the stage and announced he thinks affirmative action should go.

The studio audience fell silent. Cameras zoomed in for reaction. A female voice hissed, "No, he didn't."

Oh, yes, he did. And it was exactly what the producers of "Your Turn," a Court TV teen-age talk show, wanted.

The Washington-based crew set up its cameras at Howard Community College yesterday for a discussion with local teens about racial stereotypes -- issues ranging from so-called driving while black to affirmative action to black-on-black pressure not to succeed in school.

The hourlong show included more than 200 teen-agers from Catonsville High in Baltimore County, and River Hill and Wilde Lake high schools in Howard County. It was part of a national series that has aired on the cable channel twice-weekly for nearly four years.

The show has filmed more than 50 episodes, each in a different city, on such topics as domestic violence, the death penalty and prayer in schools. They air Saturdays and Sundays locally on Channel 76.

This episode will first air Dec. 18, and will be rebroadcast three or four times, producers said.

Producers hoped yesterday for a frank discussion of race, and they were not disappointed.

The apathetic attitude teen-agers often exude gave way to a frank discussion that swerved from hostility to bonding to confusion in the few hours of taping.

And, in a surprise to many producers and adult observers, the teens seemed to reject -- more than their predecessors -- traditional liberal notions, such as affirmative action and integration.

Darryl Smith, a black Wilde Lake High junior, said he has friends of all races but acknowledged with a shrug that he often feels more comfortable around African-Americans.

In a discussion of racial profiling, several white students scoffed at the notion that blacks might be unfairly targeted in traffic stops.

Camden, a white junior, was not alone in his anti-affirmative action sentiment, which mainly focused on college admissions.

"So often we talk about equality, but affirmative action kind of goes in the face of that," said Emily Cardy, 17, a white River Hill High senior. "If we start from an equal playing field, we should all just go from there. I don't think race should play any part of it."

Although several students insisted that historical racism made affirmative action necessary, when polled, at least half of the studio audience -- two-thirds of which was white -- said they opposed the policy.

Carol Randolph, the host who has traveled the country doing "Your Turn," said such conservatism appears to be on the rise, but she has rarely seen it as pronounced as it was yesterday.

"I've been some other places, and I don't think I would have heard all these [anti-affirmative action] sentiments. In some places, Frank [Camden] would have been close to mobbed."

The teen-agers also exhibited a fair amount of idealism, with repeated why-can't-we-all-get-along type comments.

Several students pointed to their experiences as proof that racism thrives.

A biracial student said she was kicked out of a store for being without a parent while a white child was left unattended.

A black student said police often target his brother in traffic stops. A Jewish girl said her peers frequently toss anti-Semitic comments at her.

"If someone asks me for a ride home in my car and I can't do it, they'll say, `Oh, stop being a Jew,' " said Becca Levine, 17, a Wilde Lake senior. Some, she says, throw pennies at her in school hallways: "Being Jewish [supposedly] means being stingy or cheap or snobbish."

Molly Martin, 17, a River Hill senior who volunteers with immigrant families, said she was appalled at how much racism affects society. "I've heard people see a car full of people and say, `It's Haitian-packed,' " she said.

"They don't even realize what they're saying."

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