Dutch Ruppersberger looks at his morning newspaper and thinks he's read this story before. It's about the great American edginess, called racial integration. He remembers the story from three decades ago. Only, last time, it was happening in the city where he lived. Now it's happening in the county he leads.
The morning paper says that Baltimore County's minority population, which was 3.5 percent 25 years ago, and 15 percent just five years ago, will be 30 percent by the year 2005. The great suburban migration, it turns out, is multiracial. It's white flight, and black flight, too, as the city's oppressive troubles refuse to go away.
The big question on everyone's mind now: Will those who live in the county, and govern it, and fill its shopping malls and its schools, and sink roots into communities and sometimes pull up those roots, handle the changes with more intelligence and sensitivity and more willingness to find common ground than the city did during its time of great racial changes?
"That's one of my challenges," Ruppersberger was saying the other day.
In his adolescent years, the city changed color at a frantic pace. Ruppersberger went to high school in those brief, hopeful years when the public schools were truly integrated, mostly peacefully and in many ways offering an education far beyond simple academics.
But then a racial tipping point was reached, in schools and in neighborhoods. The pace of white flight picked up. What remained behind was not only a shrunken tax base, but embittered black people wondering why they had to take the blame for merely wanting a fair shot.
Over three decades, as the city's problems mounted and its population dwindled to 700,000 residents who now cringe from the drug-driven crime and high taxes and wonder if City Hall will ever get a grip on them, new migration patterns emerged: many blacks joined the white migration. They've headed to Baltimore County, but many whites now hopscotch to Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard and Carroll counties.
Economic patterns are changing, too. Just as the first wave of blacks who struggled out of the ghettos of midcentury America tended to carry middle-class trappings to previously all-white city neighborhoods, so did the early blacks who moved to Baltimore County.
Now, say county officials, more of those arriving have incomes under $20,000 a year. They want the same things as anybody else -- a safe environment, which they haven't found in the city -- but many bring needs the county hasn't previously faced, and they arrive when the county has fewer resources to help them.
Government can't do it all," Ruppersberger said. He's been saying this since his inaugural speech, when he talked of county communities -- Dundalk, Essex, some others -- allowed to deteriorate over the past two decades while nobody was paying enough attention, and now in need of help when the county hasn't got the money it once had.
"In Essex, for example," said Ruppersberger, "we're looking at a community with a lot of low-income folks, black and white, who need help. A lot of single mothers, people who need to get their high school equivalencies or learn a trade, people with Section 8 low-cost housing. These were all city issues, but they've come to Baltimore County."
Much of this migration arrives in working-class sections where people rent instead of buy, where landlords tend to be absent, where there's not much pride that comes with home ownership.
"And now," said Ruppersberger, "the old industrial jobs that used to hold families together are gone. There's a lack of work, there's frustration. We have to find ways to pull people together, and not be parochial."
He's talking racially and geographically, too.
"Catonsville and Towson have to realize that Essex and Dundalk are part of the county, too," he said. "We need people on public assistance to realize they're part of the community, but we also have to reassure working people that they're not forgotten. They're good people, but they're fearful, and they can't understand how things have gotten this bad."
This is the language of a man who knows the dynamics of race. It shouldn't be an issue, Ruppersberger said. But he knows the American edginess. He's seen it before.