Fighting racism in P.G. County


ONE afternoon some months ago, a white kid swerved his car toward my middle son, who was walking home from his bus stop. Someone inside the vehicle yelled a racial slur. My wife went to the home of one of the teen-agers, figuring she might be able to work things out with one of the youths' parents. She was met instead by a dozen or more white teen-agers jeering her from the porch while the mother of one stepped down as if to fight. "I am," the woman said, "so sick of you people."

It's neither surprising, nor even particularly noteworthy, that this minor brush with intolerance happened. What did jolt me a little is that it happened in Prince George's County -- a jurisdiction with a black majority population, a black county executive and a national reputation as a mecca for African-American aspiration.

Coming home

Last month marked four years since we bought our house here, inspired in part by a magazine story that flashed the county's bona fides like a neon beacon: best-educated and most-affluent majority black county in the country. What more did I need to read? I was here in a heartbeat. Have loved it here ever since.

Sometimes, when you drive Prince George's meandering lanes and busy byways, you'd swear you can actually see black promise coming to fruition before your eyes. On this side, black families stand before stately mansions. On that, black congregants crowd into grand worship houses. Over there, black businesses strive, struggle and grow.

I see these things and am gratified because this is exactly what we -- my wife and I -- came here for. We wanted to live among a vibrant black middle class, wanted its restaurants and barber shops, its churches and bookstores. Needed those things as a tangible reminder to our children that "black" is not the synonym for poverty and miseducation, foolishness and dysfunction that nighttime television often clams it to be.

Cosby families

I wanted my kids to see black people living like, well . . . people -- mowing their lawns, doing their shopping, raising their families. We found that in Prince George's County.

We also found that harsh racial acrimony did not respect these borders. And while such a thing would never be acceptable anywhere, it seems especially disappointing here.

Best-educated, most-affluent, majority-black county in the country. Four years later, that description still repeats on an endless loop in my mind. But over these four years, it has taken on dual meanings, encoding both great pride in all that black people have achieved here and great fear that ultimately the achievement means less than it should, buys less relief than it ought.

Best-educated, most-affluent. majority-black county in the country. But last summer my teen-age daughter, who was working at Adventure World, a local amusement park, was called a "black bitch" by a white woman when my daughter had to deny the woman's son entry to an amusement ride.

Best-educated, most-affluent, majority-black county in the country. But my son was playing basketball with some white kids a few years ago when one got angry and called him the n-word.

Best-educated, most-affluent, majority-black county in the country. But a young friend had four police cars swoop down one night to cite him for driving with a cracked taillight.

Best-educated, most-affluent, majority-black county in the country. But a cross was burned at Bowie High School in 1997.

Best-educated, most-affluent, majority-black county in the coun- try. But sometimes, unfortunately, that doesn't mean all that it should.

You're right. I'm a naif. Too much idealism and optimism for my own good. But somehow, I had thought it might be different here. Thought this might be a safe place. Four years later, I am reminded anew that no such place exists.

It's not that Prince George's County broke its promise. Best-educated, most-affluent . . . It is that. Indeed, it's more. It's a "come far" place -- as in, a place of people who have traveled a long way from the locations and situations that once entrapped them.

Sometimes, when you drive its roads, you can't help but see that truth and feel lifted by it. Other times, unfortunately, all you see is more road.

If the county did not break its promise, perhaps I overestimated what that promise meant, took it as an end unto itself and not a signpost along the way. Neighbors who have lived here longer than I share an oral history of the county that helps me appreciate how long that way has been. They talk about the acrimony of forced busing to achieve integration, and about the bad old days when good ol' boys in law enforcement uniforms made this a place where no smart black person tarried after sundown.

Seen against that backdrop, Prince George's today seems like nothing so much as the fruit of revolution, a place where the vast majority of black people and white ones are daily in the process of writing a hopeful answer to the incendiary question police-beating victim Rodney King asked at the height of the Los Angeles riots: Can we all get along?

Yes, says most of Prince George's County, on most days, maybe we can.

But there still is work to be done toward that goal. Tinkering in human hearts and reconstruction of human perception have to occur before that point is reached. That's true in Biloxi, Miss., and Denver, Colo. And it is even true in the most-educated and most-affluent majority-black county in the country.

It's not that Prince George's racial trials raise to the level of shocking emotional trauma. Just the opposite, in fact. The things I've seen here are pieces of the ordinary, stitches from the fabric of the everyday and the anywhere.

That's just the point: You have, if you are black, seen this stuff countless times before; we will see it, Lord knows, how many times again. And so, when it happens, you are left with something more insidious than emotional trauma -- a numbing ennui, a wearying sense of futility.

Like Bill Murray in the movie "Groundhog Day," you keep living the same reality over and over again, keep driving hopefully away from the same intersection of disappointment and betrayal, only to look up and find yourself sitting right there all over again.

Too optimistic and idealistic for my own good, I have no choice but to choose the latter, no choice but to steer toward the neon beacon: Best-educated and most-affluent majority-black county in the country . . .

But four years later, I find that fact as much a spur of impatience as a lamp light of achievement. I still await the day when driving Prince George's roads will allow me to leave that intersection for good.

Columnist Leonard Pitts writes from Bowie.

Pub Date: 1/05/99

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