FOR EIGHT years now, Steve Walden and Raymond Whye have been doing business at Howard and Lexington streets in what we used to call the heart of downtown. The business exists on a sidewalk. It consists of a beat-up card table offering bargains of the day. As it happens, Walden and Whye are black. They are today's link to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and William Donald Schaefer, who agreed last week that a state program to help minority businesses "needs to end."
Mr. Governor and Mr. Comptroller, say hello to Mr. Walden and Mr. Whye.
You'll find them standing there in history's cold shadow. They're the ones hustling DVDs, body oils and strawberry-flavored licorice sticks from their card table. A proud business since 1997. They're approached by stragglers like the homeless guy who offers a hot monthly bus pass while glancing over his shoulder for the cops, and another street entrepreneur who's hustling T-shirts reading, "Feel So Good Today I Think I'll Call In Sick."
"Four for $10," says the T-shirt businessman.
They're all just scrambling to get by. In Annapolis last week, at the Board of Public Works meeting, we had Ehrlich and Schaefer engaging in one of their deep philosophical discussions that have proved so fascinating to African-Americans and Hispanics. This one was about killing the state Minority Business Enterprise program.
"When does M.B.E. end -- E.N.D.?" Schaefer asked, according to accounts of the meeting in The Sun last week. "This was not to be a permanent program."
"Do you want the legal answer or the philosophical, political answer?" Ehrlich replied. Then he said, "It needs to end, we know that. But for many years it was a joke, and it exacerbated racial tension." He added that ending it would be "difficult to achieve ... because it surrounds race politics, and race politics is real ugly."
This is known as understatement. The remarks infuriated many blacks and Hispanics, and this infuriated many whites. See how we do our dance? Whites were ticked off because they wonder when special treatment for minorities will end. Blacks and Hispanics were ticked off for the usual obscenities that seem to go unnoticed by many whites: Minority poverty and jobless numbers are about double those of whites. Thirty percent of black workers and 40 percent of Hispanic workers earn poverty-level wages. Generations of institutionalized racism are not undone just because we're tired of hearing about them.
"You asked when the MBE program is going to end," said Baltimore Sen. Verna L. Jones at a news conference. She was one of dozens of state lawmakers who responded angrily to Ehrlich's and Schaefer's remarks. "I ask you, when is racism, sexism and blatant discrimination going to end?"
At which point Ehrlich began backpedaling and scrambling and rephrasing in frantic and embarrassing ways, assuring everyone that the MBE program would stay in place. The governor was misunderstood, see? He didn't mean to upset any potential voters, see? But his remarks get us back to Walden and Whye, standing in a chill wind by their card table at Howard and Lexington. And they get us back to the enduring American issue of race.
"Heat and cold, out here every day," says Walden, 53. He wears a wooly hat and dangles a licorice stick from his lower lip. If he looks up Lexington, he can see more people, all black, with their sidewalk card tables, standing in the cold and selling baseball caps and batteries and incense. "The worst of it's the wind. Comes blowing up the street, man, goes right through you."
Across Howard Street, there's a Rite Aid. The remarkable thing about this block is what is changing so drastically, and what isn't. In the Rite Aid windows are blown-up photos of old Baltimore, including a shot of this location, Howard and Lexington, when it was the very heart of downtown. The sidewalks were all eight- and 10-deep with shoppers. The men were all wearing suits, and the women wear hats and coats. In that era, they would spend their money at Hecht's and Stewart's and the May Co., and all the big department stores that would vanish in the postwar rush to suburbia.
After the exodus, Howard Street became ghostly. Now, as part of the west-side revival, it is flush with promise. Last week, at about the same time Ehrlich and Schaefer were pondering aid to minority businesses, Baltimore development officials were unveiling expanded plans for bringing new stores and hundreds of apartments downtown.
"That should be good for us," Whye, 43, was saying now, standing over his card table. "More people, more foot traffic, more business."
The questions, as always, are: What kind of business? And who profits? And why, even in the midst of so much promise, certain people seem always to be left behind?
This gets us back to the MBE program. It is designed to ensure minority participation in state contracts. It's an acknowledgement that we are still playing catch-up, that the economic playing field is still heavily unbalanced racially and that government has to help -- because the back end of that trouble isn't just black corporations getting the short end of government contract work.
It's people standing on street corners, legally or otherwise, who spend their entire lives never quite getting their heads above water. And some politicians understand this, and try to help, and others understand the pain and manage to add to it.