Is Columbia stumbling over race?


January 14, 2001|By C. FRASER SMITH

DURING World War II, American workers were cautioned to be careful about what they said.

You could sink the war effort, they were told.

Wonder if it's alarmist to think some Columbians need a similar warning these days?

Could loose talk about race sink the city?

Could accusations of race-based decision-making on the Columbia Council create an atmosphere of mistrust and hostility?

The city won't sink. But the quality of life will not be improved by ill-considered use of incendiary language.

The concerns arise as the hapless Columbia Council finds itself pinned down yet again, this time by a controversy arising over its attempt to choose a new Columbia Association president.

After an exemplary screening process, done with professional talent scouts and thoughtful citizens, the council fell prey to the paralyzing potential in its structure: It has ten members, an even number.

An odd-numbered body can decide. An even-numbered one can be (and has been) split down the middle, leading toward negative decision-making in which initiativesdie in ties.

The failure of the council to extricate itself from this trap exacerbates the more distressing concern: that racial considerations dictated the outcome.

The conclusion seems entirely overdrawn, unsupported by any known set of facts. The council did split evenly between a black and a white candidate, but the reasons had as much to do with conclusions about the contenders' experience, ideas, management styles and judgments about what sort of leader Columbia needs.

To brush all those considerations aside and settle on race as the deciding factor seems inconsistent with the facts - and ultimately a disservice to just about everyone, including the candidates.

A vote against Michael D. Letcher, who is black and the city manager of Sedona, Ariz., apparently has been regarded by one or more members of the council and some in the community as rooted in race.

A vote for Gregory C. Ferhenbach, who is white and manager of the government in Piscataway, N.J., would be cast under this reasoning because he is white.

No proof is offered to support these conclusions.

No one doubts that matters of race are part of our lives. But it's just not enough to say that whites and blacks have prejudice and bias in their hearts and that they all act all the time on those feelings and those alone. Some do, of course. Most don't.

The idea that some council members voted for Mr. Fehrenbach or against Mr. Letcher solely on the grounds of race appears to be based on nothing more than the vote. Since some white members of the council voted for Mr. Letcher, the generalization obviously doesn't work.

No one could object if African-American voters want to organize for the election of an African American CA president. That sort of group political action and voting has happened throughout history. Happened with the Irish in Boston and with other ethnic groups elsewhere. People vote their self-interest and no one can demand otherwise.

Baltimoreans, black and white, voted overwhelmingly last year to elect a white candidate, Martin O'Malley, mayor. They were, for the most part, underwhelmed by his black opponents. And they wanted the tough approach to crime he was promising. Was that racial voting or voting based on the issues? Both, no doubt.

In a historical sense, black Baltimoreans who voted for Mr. O'Malley had a luxury. They did not have to defer their feelings about having a black leader - finally. They'd elected Kurt L. Schmoke three times, so the urgency of breaking through was less acute than it may be for some in Columbia now.

But those who wish for that result should not expect members of their council to be guided by that same objective if they conclude that some other candidate is the better choice.

And absent proof to the contrary, council members are entitled to respect and a belief that they are making the best judgments they can on the facts before them. They'll need that trust as they start their search anew.

This controversy must be seen as part of life and of politics. That is one reason the structure is ultimately so important. Structure and process, carefully tailored, enable us to settle things for the moment at least until there is another election or another vote.

We can see the principle all around us: One may disagree with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Florida, for example - and more than half of us might wish it had been different - but the necessity of a decision cannot be denied.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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