Schmoke talks about city's racial problems - at long last

November 30, 1999|By Michael Olesker

It is natural for Kurt L. Schmoke to unleash a few emotions now. He leaves City Hall after 12 embattled winters and hears the same mutterings as everyone else: These were years of disappointment. The city's troubles did not go away. One man's impressive background did not add up to a community's renaissance.

He hears these sentiments, and they must deflate and depress him. He ends his mayoral days rushing to the scene of yet another young black man shot to death on a street corner, and listens to the reflex cries of police brutality. His neighborhoods are pockmarked by abandoned homes. His public schools, once the centerpiece of all his hopes, continue to lose huge numbers to dropouts, and to pregnancies, and to parental indifference.

And he is the man at the top, to whom all fingers point.

The natural instinct for any human being is to offer a defense, to cast blame elsewhere. No one wants to feel 12 years at hard labor counted for so much disappointment in so many minds.

But it is still puzzling to read the front page interview in Friday's Afro-American newspaper, where the departing mayor speaks these words:

"It's a city where issues of race continue to be very important, but they are issues no one wants to talk about. It's almost as if people would like to ignore the fact that race continues to be a significant factor in determining the quality of life here in the city and the metropolitan area."

This language is flabbergasting, because the voice everyone has waited for 12 years to hear on race is Schmoke's. More than anyone else's, we imagined his would be the calm, insistent sound of healing, telling us all how we are one community at our best, and not several in competition.

Because we know him as such a reasonable man, we imagined he might speak uncomfortable truths to us gently enough to absorb: how whites and blacks have wounded each other, and how each community must take responsibility for its actions, and its troubles, and how the city ultimately cannot move forward without this.

But, from the earliest days of his administration, we never heard this kind of language. The mayor seemed uncomfortable with it. Asked specific questions about race, his language became its most tentative, each phrase landing delicately, as though anticipating land mines.

So such questioning ceased. It was replaced by a simple hope that eventually the mayor would talk about race because the subject meant so much.

Schmoke was the first child of the great American civil rights movement to run the city, the first who attended integrated public schools and understood what strengths came from the daily mix of many backgrounds. In his time at City College, Schmoke was that school's first black student government president. But a long history preceded it.

Three weeks ago at City, the school held its annual Hall of Fame assembly. Schmoke was inducted more than a decade ago. Among those welcomed this year was Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, the author and former vice president of the World Jewish Congress.

Hertzberg graduated from City in the 1930s. He emerged each morning from an East Baltimore home where the parents conversed in Yiddish, and he took the bus across town to 33rd Street, where his classmates were arriving from homes where the comfortable language was not necessarily English and many still felt like outsiders.

Three weeks ago, Hertzberg stood at the rear of City's auditorium. He hadn't seen the school in years, and now an old, familiar feeling came over him.

"Every time I entered this building," he said, "I felt as if I were entering America."

He still felt that way. Inside the auditorium, the school chorus sang "America," with its familiar "My country, 'tis of thee" opening.

But it was "America" the way neither Hertzberg nor almost anyone else ever heard it. The voices soared until they made the flesh stand at attention. All the kids, boys and girls, were black. As they sang, they waved miniature American flags. And the swaying of their bodies, and the rolling cadence and rhythms arrived not only from the song itself but from generations of African-American churches, and a people who put their indelible stamp on the culture.

And this is what Rabbi Hertzberg talked about in his induction speech. He remembered lots of Jewish kids of his era going to City, and the sense they had of their own accumulating numbers, and the impact they might make.

But never, he said, would they have imagined taking such a national icon as "America" and invoking ancient Eastern European inflections and making it their own the way this magnificent chorus had.

When America works, it lets each group contribute its best. This city has waited 12 years for its mayor to call upon our most generous instincts and build on those strengths, and tell us where we're falling short, and why.

It is painful, at this late date, to hear Kurt Schmoke wonder why race goes undiscussed, and fail to notice his own silence.

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