Legislature gives blacks a political victory, but despair on streets goes on

March 18, 2001|By Michael Olesker

IT IS AMAZING HOW the common wisdom arrives, and gets it absolutely wrong. In Annapolis, the General Assembly votes last week to guarantee minority business people a bigger cut of the economic pie, and this is seen as evidence of the growing political power of black people. It should be precisely the opposite.

And the proof could be seen in two front-page articles in this newspaper, placed next to each other the morning after last week's State House action: one covering the legislative vote and the other charting the continuing criminal pathology on impoverished streets, which now takes the life of another city cop.

In Maryland, as in many places in America, there is still the out-of-proportion economic blight in black neighborhoods, and still the preponderance of crime there committed by African-Americans. This is a simple fact, and a slap at everyone's conscience. You walk through the criminal courts, or the prisons, and you see the continuing rows of the faces of young black people.

It is not an indictment of one race, but all; it is not a mathematical computation merely of crimes committed, but all the things that contribute to it, including the obvious news, visible to generations of black people, that the economic game was rigged to exclude them.

This includes generations of public schools that are underfunded in the communities that need money the worst; and generations of business owners who froze blacks out of jobs; and labor unions that wanted no part of blacks for years and years; and governments that have always operated on the old boy network, in which the white business pals of white politicians managed to secure virtually all of the big-money government contracts.

In such an economy, designed and controlled by whites, black people either scrambled for its leftovers - or, in the worst desperation, created an economy of their own. The bitterest harvest of that separate economy, fueled by narcotics and by a society that has always found big money to spend on prisons but comes up empty on medical treatment and therapy, is seen in the courts and the police stations, and in the thing that happened last week in the 2300 block of Harford Road, where police Agent Michael J. Cowdery Jr. was shot to death in what this newspaper politely called a "suspected drug corridor."

The phrase could be found in the story "On Harford, life goes on." Some life. It goes on with everyone's heads ducked down in five Northeast Baltimore neighborhoods on either side of Harford Road where violence is considered repugnant - but routine. It goes on in a city where the mayor's political centerpiece is reduction of crime, and the police commissioner is seen on television each evening mourning the violent death of one more officer. It goes on in a city where this year's homicide count reached 51 last week - which is four more than at this time last year, a year when everyone took bows because the count dropped below 300 for the first time in a decade.

The Harford Road story was placed next to the one about the General Assembly vote: "Md. House OKs minority contract goal," the one in which growing political power is seen as the reason for the overwhelming approval.

If there is any conscience at all remaining in politics, it has to be precisely the opposite motivation. It acknowledges that, while the civil rights revolution helped create a black middle class where none previously existed, it still left behind large numbers of people who have been poorly educated, are economically strapped and have no sense of connection with employment possibilities. Where is the "growing black political power" when such conditions are a way of life?

The bill raises the state's goal of minority contracts from 14 percent to 25 percent, which is closer to Maryland's African-American population. It is also acknowledgement that blacks have got to be cut in on the game, or the price of exclusion will be paid in other ways.

In crime, for example. At week's end, in Maryland prisons, there were 23,283 inmates. (Only a decade ago, that figure was 16,592. Only a decade before that, it was 8,073.)

Of the current prison population, 77.9 percent is African-Americans.

The minority contracting bill is seen as one of the most aggressive of its kind in the country - particularly in a time when courts have been derailing affirmative action rulings. The vote is seen as a victory for Gov. Parris Glendening, who made it a top priority of this session, and a win not only for African-American legislators, but for women, as well.

But it has to be seen in a world beyond politics, and who wins and loses within the confines of the State House. In Maryland, as in much of America, there is still an African-American population economically famished beyond proportion, and criminally troubled beyond statistical proportion.

The two are connected. That vote in Annapolis must be seen as belated acknowledgment of this simple truth, and perhaps the beginning of something better.

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