Extending a hand across racial divide

January 15, 2004|By Dirk Haire

I AM THE recipient of the 2004 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dream Keepers Award, which previously has been given to significant civil rights figures, including NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, former U.S. Rep. Parren J. Mitchell and former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs.

The award is in recognition of my volunteer efforts in the African-American community. I am also the white general counsel of the Maryland Republican Party.

How can this be?

I was raised in one of the few racially integrated communities in southern Indiana. Like many Indiana schoolboys, I grew up competing on basketball teams. By the time I reached high school, I was regularly on a basketball court with four black teammates, facing all-white teams in all-white communities.

While the intolerance that my friends and I experienced in the mid-1980s doesn't compare with the struggles faced by civil rights pioneers, it did, at an early age, provide me with an appreciation for the obstacles that exist along the path to racial equality. It also taught me that, in matters related to race, trust and respect that are earned through shared personal experience trump every well-meaning promise or good intention.

Eventually, like many white professionals, my daily routine did not typically involve the opportunity to make an active contribution to race relations. While I felt no less strongly about the importance of racial equality than in my earlier years, my efforts had become limited to attending an annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. I felt that this was not enough.

Based on my service with several nonprofit boards and civic and political groups, I was aware that few white Marylanders - Democrat or Republican - volunteered with groups in the African-American community. To me, it seemed that this lack of white volunteerism in the African-American community posed a substantial obstacle to building meaningful relationships between black and white Marylanders. For this reason, I joined the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Awards Dinner Committee.

This committee, composed of leaders of many important black organizations, annually recognizes - with the Dream Keepers Award - those who are committed to racial equality, and fosters volunteerism throughout the African-American community.

My service with the committee and its members has reinforced my belief that our state would benefit from the friendships that are built through the simple act of working together. Unfortunately, however, I do not typically find that race relations are a high priority for many white Marylanders. I don't mean to imply that race relations have not improved or that white Marylanders don't believe in racial equality. Rather, in my experience, while promises and good intentions are present, people are not.

Such a lack of participation is debilitating when it comes to building trust and respect, especially when viewed through the context of our nation's racial history. Perhaps, in part, this was Dr. King's source of frustration when he wrote from a Birmingham jail: "The Negro's great stumbling block is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to `order' than to justice."

Although my volunteer work in the African-American community is unrelated to my role as general counsel for the state Republican Party, some may challenge the sincerity of my efforts based solely on my political affiliation. I can only offer in response that through my years of volunteerism in the African-American community, this has never been raised as an issue.

I have been welcomed, treated with respect and treated as an equal. In return, I trust that my friends in the African-American community depend on me to be a reliable partner in our common goal to achieve a Maryland where diversity is built on personal relationships, not impersonal slogans.

Dirk Haire is a lawyer and the general counsel of the Maryland Republican Party.

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