BECAUSE HE IS not naive regarding the power of race in America, Martin O'Malley knew one thing going into his new job as the white mayor of Baltimore: He needed a black police commissioner to take some of the heat.
This is because, in the continuing suspicion black people and white people have for each other, and our continuing instinct to weigh the political arithmetic of race, and to ascribe racial motives to every public gesture, we imagine conspiracies based on skin color even if none is intended.
In O'Malley's case, Ron Daniel was not perfect as the choice for police commissioner. His temper is as quick as O'Malley's, and he tends to spit in the eye of authority figures. But he had the proper professional credentials and an intimate knowledge of his hometown, and he presented a symbol to the black community: The new white mayor understands the need for black authority figures in a majority-black community.
Daniel qualified -- particularly for O'Malley, who was elected mayor by telling the truth about crime, and by vowing dramatically to fight it. It is not news to anyone that the majority of street crime in this city is committed in black neighborhoods, and that large numbers of black voters, frightened by crime and frustrated by City Hall ineptitude, backed O'Malley but held on to reservations about him, and to historic misgivings about perceived abuses by police.
O'Malley needed a black police commissioner when the inevitable (and not necessarily untrue) charges of racial profiling, of racial antagonism, and of police heavy-handedness would arrive.
Here is the man running the show, O'Malley could say, wrapping an arm around Daniel. This is the man behind the drug sweeps, behind tougher police tactics than we have ever seen, behind the phrase "zero tolerance" O'Malley used in the early days of the last mayoral campaign and then later discarded as being unnecessarily provocative.
In fact, on the day he was named commissioner, Daniel pointedly declared that he would never use the term. But if he had a problem with the phrase, he seemed to have no problem with the motivation behind it: the dreadful street crime in this city and the need to go where no previous police commissioner had gone to reduce it.
And that's not all that he knew. He also knew O'Malley was bringing in a couple of hot shots from New York who were getting big money as the new architects of Baltimore's crime-fighting plans. Were they going to crowd Daniel? Of course. This was a given.
But here was Daniel, a city cop for a quarter-century who had gone to the mat with the former commissioner, Thomas Frazier, and been sent to Siberia for it -- and, knowing the new ground rules, and the new ruling class at City Hall and the Police Department, took the job when it was offered to him.
He knew, in other words, that he was not merely signing on as commissioner -- he was signing on to a program, and a plan of action, and a chain of command in which his would not be the only voice of power.
And, between that moment two months ago when he agreed to all of this, and those moments when he began to feel like a figurehead, and began to wonder about tactics employed in his name, and he and O'Malley began to holler at each other, the two of them realized this was never going to work out.
So nobody looks good.
O'Malley will now be accused of setting up Daniel for failure, of giving him a title but insufficient power, and of playing the race game by appointing him with white deputies hovering nearby like birds of prey. His political honeymoon is now over.
And Daniel, a man of unquestioned integrity, has made himself look naive -- that he didn't figure out the ground rules ahead of time, and that he didn't understand you have to establish your own power base before you take on the strongest elected official in town.
And, naive that he didn't realize O'Malley's electors issued a very specific mandate: We want tougher crime measures.
So we arrive at a familiar crossroads of politics and race. We went down this road before with Daniel, when he took on the white commissioner, Frazier. That time, he had O'Malley on his side. And, that time, it was the mayor named Schmoke who took Frazier's side.
This time, we can perceive all manner of racial conspiracies and allow ourselves to wallow in them. Or we can focus on the larger picture of this city. There are still neighborhoods where innocent people are afraid to come out of their homes, and this has continued through mayors black and white, and police commissioners black and white.
And, if we keep wondering about the racial politics behind it, instead of the simple need to bring civility back to this city, then the outlaw culture continues. And laughs at the rest of us, black and white, for letting our mutual suspicions about race overrule our fears about crime.