Hopkins professor offers insights on race relations

Forum traces history of `avoidance' in city

January 21, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Conversations about race relations in Baltimore have been much too polite over the years, Johns Hopkins University political science professor Matthew A. Crenson said at a University of Maryland session yesterday attended by a diverse array of about 100 people, mostly nonprofit workers.

Because Baltimore is a meeting point between Northern and Southern culture, it has produced "a pervasive culture of avoidance" toward race matters, where outward civility covers festering wounds, Crenson told the conference sponsored by Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. and the UM School of Social Work, site of the forum.

In the 19th century, Philadelphia Quaker merchants who migrated south, white Southerners who went north and the largest free black population of any city in the nation combined to make Baltimore a place where topics of race and slavery were best left alone to keep the peace, said Crenson, 57, a Baltimore native.

"It took me 50 years to figure this out," said Crenson, noting that racial politics are more confrontational in other cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia. And, he added, Chicago has made more progress than Baltimore on that front over the past 15 years.

The good news, said Crenson: The election of Mayor Martin O'Malley just over a year ago with a strong mandate from both white and black voters portends an era of "post-racial" city politics. And some of those attending yesterday's session saw the discussion as a starting point.

"This could pick up where Bill Clinton's racial-healing forums left off," said Ty'n Thonotosassa, attending with his wife, Charlotte, and 15-year-old daughter, Teriyaki-Reba.

Many at yesterday's event agreed that race relations in Baltimore could be better, and some used the image of a wall of silence that they hope to break down.

Ralph E. Moore Jr., vice president of the Center for Poverty Solutions, noted as an example the clash last fall over the city's proposal to relocate 10 publicly assisted households to Northeast Baltimore.

He recalled attending a packed meeting where the outcry against the plan made it "one of the saddest, ugliest nights I've spent in Baltimore."

Moore said most city neighborhoods and churches are still separated by color lines and that most poverty is concentrated in black communities. On the public school scene, he said, "We finally got schools integrated, and then the whites, and some blacks, leave."

Crenson noted that Baltimore's schools were desegregated quickly in the wake of the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling - integrating by a unanimous vote of the school board then chaired by Walter Sondheim.

As a result, he said, the city never was forced to come to grips with the wounds inflicted by segregation.

Another speaker concurred that conflict can simmer below the surface here. Donna Jones Stanley, chief executive officer of Associated Black Charities, said, "It's like a sore and a bandage. You don't see it, it feels a little better with a bandage, but it needs some air and then it heals."

A man in his 20s, artist and musician Denham Fassett, said he hoped to attend a United Nations world conference in South Africa in August on racism and xenophobia and bring back the experience to Baltimore.

Concluded Charles G. Tildon Jr.: "Not talking about it [race relations] doesn't solve the problem."

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