Recruiting efforts by two white supremacist groups in eastern Baltimore County are troubling to officials and local residents, who say the activities reflect poorly on an area that has been trying to overcome an undeserved reputation for racial intolerance.
As lawyers argue whether it was legal for the county to prohibit one of the groups - the World Church of the Creator - from meeting at the Rosedale public library this month, questions remain about what drew the organization to the area: Was it because the Rosedale area is predominantly white and working class? Is the group trying to capitalize on past racial tensions?
In addition to the World Church of the Creator - a group that bills itself as the fastest-growing white racist and anti-Semitic organization in America - a racist organization called the National Alliance distributed fliers in Essex late last month. The literature was loaded with racial innuendo about the recent Washington-area sniper attacks.
The two groups' effort to attract new members has been roundly condemned.
"I think the racial tension is behind us," said Don Crockett, a longtime community activist in Essex. "I think most people in this area are upset about these racist groups. It makes the majority of us look bad."
David Pringle, membership coordinator for the National Alliance, based in Hillsboro, W.Va., said the group is merely exercising its constitutional rights.
"We're reaching out to white Americans," said Pringle of the group, which has a chapter in Parkville.
He said about 500,000 fliers are distributed by Alliance members annually. "It's us exercising our freedom of speech."
The east side has had some difficult times when it comes to matters of race.
History of problems
As recently as the mid-1990s, Essex, Dundalk, Middle River and Rosedale were associated with efforts to keep out housing developments that many said would attract black families to the area.
A program to desegregate the city's public housing system called Moving to Opportunity created a furor in 1994 in the county's blue-collar, east-side communities. Activists and politicians claimed that MTO was the first step in a plan by city and federal officials to move thousands of poor city residents to their neighborhoods, though up to half of the east side wouldn't have been affected.
In the mid-1980s, a number of racially motivated attacks on black east-side residents were reported. One involved a woman in North Point Village who endured a cross-burning near her house, two firebombings at her home and nearly two years of abusive telephone calls and racial insults before she moved.
And within the last two weeks, a half-dozen parents withdrew their children from Evangel Christian Academy, a private Christian school in Rosedale, after two former teachers accused school administrators of making racist remarks.
Today, many east-side communities remain overwhelmingly white, according to 2000 census figures.
More than 90 percent of Dundalk's 62,000 residents are white. That figure is 84 percent in Middle River, and 76 percent in Rosedale. Most residents in these communities are middle class and have not earned college degrees, according to census data.
'We're not racists'
But officials and residents say racial strife is a thing of the past, and that the supremacist groups are not welcome.
"This is a hard-working, blue-collar area. We're not racists," said Baltimore County Council Chairman John A. Olszewski Sr., who represents Essex and Dundalk. "And I think we feel the way any community would if they had those groups coming to recruit - that it's offensive and disturbing. I don't see any particular reason why they'd chose this area."
Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, whose district includes part of the east side, added: "I don't see them getting support here. I think most people have ignored them. I'm frankly surprised" at the recruiting.
Organizations that track hate groups said such groups don't necessarily target neighborhoods because they're more sympathetic to racist causes.
"These groups aren't usually that sophisticated in their efforts to recruit members," said Elliot Mincberg, vice president for the People for the American Way Foundation, a liberal nonprofit civil rights group in Washington.
The World Church of the Creator and the National Alliance are the most aggressive recruiters among white supremacist groups, according to Gail Gans, director of the civil rights information center for the Anti-Defamation League.
"Both groups try to recruit young people," Gans said. "They try to exploit social issues in a community, like violence in schools, which is part of the reason they're so dangerous. They're looking for people who have issues with American society, those, for example, who have been displaced by minority groups."