IT'S RACE Unity Day in Howard County. With the events this past week in Jasper, Texas, it's clear that this nation needs much more than a day of picnicking, games and musical entertainment devoted to racial harmony.
But events such as those scheduled for today at Wilde Lake High School help to build -- albeit it in a small way -- relationships that transcend color lines and religious divisions.
What happened in Texas was shocking and demoralizing. A 49-year-old black man accepted an apparently friendly gesture by three white men who promised him a ride home. He was murdered instead.
The assailants beat James Byrd Jr. senseless. They chained him by the ankles to the rear of a pickup truck and dragged him three miles. He was decapitated. His right arm was ripped off. Blood and pieces of his body were found at 75 points along the road.
Good people wonder how anyone could hate another person so much just because he is of a different race. Their naivete is symptomatic of an overly optimistic view of race relations that is too common.
Much of the opposition to affirmative action programs is based on the mistaken premise that merit today always beats racism.
People in Jasper probably weren't that naive. But before the murder of James Byrd Jr., they didn't think the racial depravity that remains in their little corner of East Texas would ever reach depths as sinister as any lynching that occurred in America.
"We don't have a race problem here," said the local district attorney, but he quickly added, "I mean, we do -- everybody does -- but it's not widespread."
It's widespread enough.
Most of the Maryland media downplayed the racial aspect in the Florida assault of three vacationing young men from Columbia, one of whom was black. But the April incident was called a race crime by many publications.
It's a reasonable assumption that the mob attack on Kevans Bradshaw Hall, Matthew Christopher Wichita and Seth Kenyon Qubeck was exacerbated by Mr. Hall's race. He and Mr. Wichita were killed for their earlier rescue of two white women who were being harassed by local ruffians.
The Florida men accused of beating and stabbing the Marylanders are young, white ex-convicts. Their backgrounds resemble those of the Texas men accused of killing Mr. Byrd.
The father of one of the Texas defendants contends his son learned his racism in prison, not at home. Racial allegiances give some inmates the security they need to survive the violence inside correctional institutions. They take their race hatred with them when they leave. It's often hidden -- until it explodes.
It is the ease with which some people hide their racism that makes it so difficult to battle. People in Jasper didn't think anyone there would ever make a person suffer the way Mr. Byrd did.
Who really knows what lesser crimes and slights are committed every day by prejudiced people who easily mask feelings that some have convinced themselves are not based on race?
Joe Roy, a Southern Poverty Law Center official, monitors racist activity across the nation. He says what happened to James Byrd Jr. in Texas could have happened anywhere. Racial tension in America is fueled by competition between economically marginal groups -- poor whites and poor blacks. These are also the people most likely to end up in prison.
But affluence is no antidote to racism. Poverty is seldom apparent in wealthy Howard County, but there is prejudice here. White people embarrassed by what some of their other friends have said about African-Americans have repeated the comments to me, as if confession alone is absolution.
I would much prefer they confront the prejudiced with their sin.
Silence isn't golden
Too many people have become comfortable with their biases because friends who disagree with them remain silent.
The guilty need to know their casual remarks that demean people of another race, gender, ethnic or religious group, or sexual orientation help to sustain an odious environment of intolerance in which more extreme individuals commit murder.
It is discouraging that at the same time the slaying of Mr. Byrd was being reported, the White House was acknowledging shortcomings of President Clinton's national conversation on race.
The "One America" initiative has produced little more than a lot of talk. The formality of the conversations has gotten in the way. Changing people's hearts has to be more personal.
The strides in race relations that came as a result of mass movements and government edict are history. The progress yet to be made will depend on individual acts of kindness and sensitivity that no president can mandate.
It's not enough to attend Race Unity Days.
Don't let your silence at home be mistaken for agreement with remarks and acts by friends that help foster an environment in which race hatred is considered an acceptable trait.
Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.
Pub Date: 6/14/98