Council tries to mend fences on changing boundaries Recalling the night that Sheila Dixon let the shoe drop

When time mercifully causes all else to fade from memory about the great racial debate of 1991, the vision of a shoeless Sheila Dixon will unfortunately remain.

While the city councilwoman from West Baltimore did not literally put her foot in her mouth the other night, she did remove her shoe and wave it in the faces of her white colleagues and declare:


"You've been running things for the last 20 years. Now the shoe is on the other foot. See how you like it."

In so doing, Dixon performed that rare feat of saying exactly the right thing in exactly the wrong manner -- and thus pointed out the festering sore that race relations still remain, years after many imagined it would heal itself through hard work and good will and diplomacy.


Dixon, who is black, spoke bluntly of an undeniable truth: As the city of Baltimore has shifted over the past 25 years from majority white to majority black, its political representation has unfairly stayed majority white.

Now there is a plan afoot -- sponsored by black council members -- to redraw the city's councilmanic districts, moving much of white South Baltimore's 6th District and predominantly white areas of Northeast Baltimore's 3rd District to the east side's 1st District.

The result would be a 1st District that is overwhelmingly white -- by some estimates, about 80 percent -- while effectively making the otherfive city districts majority black.

There may be a thin line here between political redistricting and the ghettoizing of whites.

When Sheila Dixon stuck her shoe in white council members' faces the other night, she summed up all the fears that have hung like a cloud over this city for the past quarter-century: that, as the balance of power shifts, people of different races still have to learn to live with one another, that the generations to come should not repeat the sins of the generations that preceded them, reversing only the skin color of the sinners.

"This is a council that works so well together," said South Baltimore Councilman Joe DiBlasi, looking around a packed council chamber Tuesday night, "that we're not afraid to have a kitchen fight in public. It's a healthy process, in its way, like a family. But, when Sheila Dixon raised her shoe, it was like, 'We're gonna conquer you.' "

"I'm not being self-righteous, but my whole career is based on integration," added Northeast Baltimore Councilman Bill Cunningham. "And suddenly I've got Dixon yelling at me, 'You're responsible for the last 200 years. You're the problem.' What in the world is she talking about?"

Cunningham knows what she's talking about. The question is: Why is she saying it so badly, and so randomly, in such fragile times?


"We've been left out of the process too long," Dixon was saying Tuesday night at City Hall. She was sitting at a long wooden table and talking in a stage-whisper while, in front of her, for five hours, a parade of politicians and voters testified on the proposed redistricting.

The atmosphere was brittle. Near the end of an emotional speech, state Sen. George Della, calling for a kind of political color blindness, testified, "We work together. We pray together."

From the balcony came a loud and abrasive, "Booo!"

"And we boo together," said Della.

"It doesn't make sense," declared Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, chairing the meeting, "just to give us cacophony."

"It isn't cacophony," Della contended, referring to his speech.


"No," said Spector, "I meant the extraneous noise."

But the misunderstandings -- and the misleading remarks -- went deeper than that. Della said black council members were making too much of race. He knows better than that. He indicated that white politicians don't pay such attention to skin color. He knows better than that, too.

Nobody on the council is naive enough not to know about old-line white political clubs that have turned their backs on blacks, about organizations that have refused to put blacks on election tickets even as the color of the city has changed, about back-room deals that whites have put together to freeze blacks out of the political process.

That's what Sheila Dixon was talking about. What's so upsetting is the way she talked about it, the naked, in-your-face anger, and the way she blanketed even those whites who have worked hard for fairness, and the question her gesture raises: Is the new redistricting plan an attempt at fairness, or a gesture of revenge for generations of whites being unfair to blacks?

"It's not revenge," Dixon said,"it's empowerment for people left out in the past."

She was whispering the words as Frank Gallagher, the former City Council president, testified. Gallagher said the new redistricting plan would cause "chaos and turmoil" as white taxpayers fled the city. Dixon said that was bunk.


"That's an argument I resent," she said. "If a person's going to leave the city, they're going to leave. But it's difficult today to just pick up and go. So I don't think people will leave just because of this."

Point well taken. Nobody with working brain cells moves simply because an election goes the wrong way. But this goes beyond politics to the psychology of race. It is a fair thing to have the City Council reflect the racial composition of the city as a whole.

But it is a frightening thing to have someone of alleged stature wave a shoe around and declare, in effect: "Your day is over."

When that kind of gesture passes for diplomacy and good will, the city of Baltimore's day is over.