Baltimore of 1992 is vastly different from Baltimore of 25 years ago. That's one reason this city so far has avoided the kind of civil unrest that devastated Los Angeles last week. But it would be a grave mistake to breathe a sigh of relief and ignore the warning that the Los Angeles riot symbolizes for all American metropolitan areas.
Yes, Baltimore is now far more open in the political and governmental arenas to minority participation -- from the very top on down. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke attests to that. So do State's Attorney Stuart Simms, Police Commissioner Edward Woods and School Superintendent Walter Amprey. Progress has been substantial, and visible. The number of upwardly advancing black professionals in Baltimore businesses also has grown.
And yet a lingering division of the races remains in this city -- and even more so in the suburbs. Some of it is socio-economic. Some of it is blatant prejudice. The result has been the rise of a growing underclass of poor people whose sorry living conditions are too often ignored by the rest of us. Poverty among inner-city blacks is just as severe as it was in 1970, and the earning power among black households is only two-thirds what it is for whites.
For the past decade, government has encouraged us to pretend the problems associated with poverty can safely be disregarded. The "me" decade of the 1980s was truly a time of benign neglect for inner city concerns. The attitude arose in the suburbs that it was time to "watch out for No. 1" -- that the aggrandizement of one's self and one's immediate surroundings were all that mattered.
Suburban governments have given Baltimore the back of the hand, craving more financial rewards for themselves at the expense of the city. Yet all the while, Baltimore has been growing poorer, and the suburbs have been growing vastly richer. The city no longer has the resources to turn the inner-city situation around by itself.
Avoiding a local blowup will take concerted action -- by the mayor and county executives, other regional political leaders, business and civic leaders, community and religious groups. Los Angeles demonstrates the depth of pain and anger in African American communities. Ways must be found to pump economic life into minority areas, to make them an integral part of the Baltimore scene.
Local police agencies must learn from Los Angeles, too. Suburban police forces, in particular, have fallen short in developing the kinds of sensitivities toward minorities that are essential. With the number of blacks living in the suburbs rising rapidly, the potential for racial flare-ups could happen in any Baltimore-area jurisdiction.
Now is the time for understanding and communication. Gov. William Donald Schaefer ought to serve as a catalyst to bring key regional representatives together. He should demand a realistic game plan, one that they will implement themselves. If the Baltimore region is to grow and prosper, the racial divide must be bridged.