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Mayor Schmoke: the nouveau nationalist


I DON'T know if Mayor Kurt Schmoke and his campaign manager Larry Gibson are fans of Cole Porter, but he wrote some lines that are very appropriate for their rather panic stricken and desperate campaign strategy: "It's the wrong time and the wrong place . . . it's the wrong song with the wrong style . . . it's the wrong game with the wrong chips."

For a politician as "color neutral," and as unresponsive to the African-American community's hopes and dreams, much less its practical needs, as Mayor Schmoke, the use of a race-based campaign theme is hypocritical and more than a little insulting.

As part of his effort to solidify the black community behind him in his race for a third term, Mayor Schmoke is using a red, black and green color scheme on his brochures and other advertisements touting his campaign. Perhaps, he and Larry Gibson don't know what those colors mean. One could get that impression: In The Evening Sun, Larry Gibson was reported to have said of the Schmoke campaign's bumper sticker that the colors are not for liberation but for Baltimore. He said the black and white are for the city's diversity, red represents the city's past struggles and green represents promise and growth.

Since 1920, red, black and green displayed in combination have represented black nationalism. Marcus Garvey, the most successful black nationalist leader in history, chose those colors to represent African people around the world. The red represents the blood that was spilled as his people fought against slavery and oppression. The black stands for African people united. The green represents an Africa free of colonialism and its bright future.

Those colors do not represent the self-aggrandizement of a politician who has run out of all other scams for re-election. To African-Americans like me -- who came of age in the 1960s -- the red, black and green flag represents a black community that was exercising self-determination and unity. Of course, there were numerous police and FBI infiltrators in black power and civil rights groups. There were con artists who exploited the upsurge of nationalist feeling, but generally when we saw a red, black and green flag or bumper sticker or button we knew the person was emotionally -- if not actively -- supporting black power.

Of course, many black nationalists were used as foot soldiers and shock troops against entrenched white political establishments in many cities. Usually, the beneficiaries of those efforts were the more traditional (read less militant) black politicos. This generally happened in the '60s and early '70s. Belatedly, it happened in Chicago in 1982, with the election of Mayor Harold Washington.

Dear, politically retarded, Baltimore is bringing up the rear again as Mayor Kurt Schmoke tries a trick that played out nearly 20 years ago: trying to run a race-based campaign. What is even stranger is that unlike Richard Hatcher in Gary, Ind., Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Ohio, and Kenneth Gibson in Newark, N.J. -- all successful black mayoral candidates of a generation ago -- Mr. Schmoke is not running against a stubborn white political establishment. He is the political establishment running scared against a white populist candidate, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

Even if the mayor's red, black and green strategy were based on a shred of sincerity, which it is not, it would be the wrong one against a white candidate who is received more warmly in many African-American neighborhoods than he is. He may have black supporters who will vote for him because they do not want to see a white person take over the mayor's office, but none that I have spoken to have given me a passionate endorsement of Mr. Schmoke. On the other hand, Mary Pat Clarke's supporters are fervent.

If Mr. Schmoke were running against an overt racist like the infamous sheriff of Birmingham, Ala., Bull Connor, and he was even slightly responsive to his black constituents he would be a sure bet to win. Reality is much more bitter for the incumbent mayor. He must now rally black voters; he apparently has given up on white voters by virtue of his red, black and green campaign which they understand to represent black power and the end of white supremacy. He has never before embraced the black liberation flag during his political career.

He must try to ride a wave of nationalist sentiment in a black community that even some of his supporters admit in private moments he has never tried to embrace, support or elevate. Kurt Schmoke, the nouveau black nationalist, the man who actively opposed the last City Council redistricting plan (which laid the groundwork for black political advances in the Sixth District in 1991 and very likely the Third District this year) is so desperate he must rely on the concept of preserving black political progress to stave off defeat.

This will be a difficult task since he has replaced a black school board president with a white one and he has replaced a black police commissioner with a white one. He has set the stage for the electorate to ask why it cannot follow his lead and replace a black mayor with a white one. It will be a long, hot, desperate summer for Baltimore's newest black nationalist.

R. B. Jones writes from Baltimore.

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