A conversation whose time has come?

The Baltimore Sun

Even before a charismatic black leader reached across the racial divide, Marylanders were setting out in search of deeper understanding.

Several ominous incidents - a case of arson and nooses of uncertain origin - lent urgency to the mission.

Then last week, Sen. Barack Obama daringly made a call for racial groups to explore attitudes and assumptions. He made his appeal a tenet of his presidential campaign - an unprecedented challenge. He felt obliged to address the controversial remarks of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But he put the matter in a broader context.

During a speech in Philadelphia, he said the complexities of race are an issue this nation "has never really worked through. ... And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together to solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American."

With similar concerns in mind, the Maryland Humanities Council had begun a series of community conversations on race last year.

The council found varying degrees of acceptance for its challenge. In some parts of the state, the conversations have been eagerly embraced as useful and necessary. In other areas, the idea of talking about race has been greeted with wariness, as if talk might revive more antagonism than understanding. Enduring racial sensitivities have been manifest in such things as the proposal to put a statue of former Maryland slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass on the courthouse lawn in Easton.

In a sense, the national conversation about race - such as it was - ended after the riots of the 1960s, after the cities burned, after discrimination was ameliorated in the nation's laws. As difficult as it was to confront Jim Crow in practice and custom, dealing with the silent fears and discomforts of race has been even more challenging. Howard Law School Dean Charles Hamilton Houston, who worked to sue Jim Crow out of Maryland in the 1930s and 1940s, observed that changing people's minds would be more difficult than changing laws.

Senator Obama's campaign shows the issue remains. And it's not just in the campaign for president: Across the nation, there have been displays, real and contrived, of nooses in a schoolyard and, in Baltimore, a firehouse.

Real, devastating fires were set in 2004 by vandals who may have wanted to frighten new black homeowners in Southern Maryland. Discriminatory drug laws have resulted in prison populations overrepresented by blacks. City schools have been resegregated, subjecting young black students to the same damaging isolation that led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the illusory doctrine of separate but equal in 1954.

Surely there is much to talk about. Some may wish to wait for change to evolve, but wouldn't it be better to accelerate change by fostering a dialogue that deepened understanding?

The Maryland Humanities Council's determination to promote conversations comes 40 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination on April 4, 1968. That wrenching event provoked a national outpouring of anger and despair. There was lawlessness, to be sure, but the riots of 1968 were the expression of pent-up anger held in reserve for decades.

An exploration of that cataclysm, under way at the University of Baltimore for many months, will include a three-day symposium beginning April 3 and continuing through April 5. It's one of several attempts to get racial understanding on the public agenda.

In Baltimore, a standing-room-only audience listened last fall to a mock discussion between actors representing Malcolm X and Dr. King moderated by Marc Steiner, the former talk-show host at WYPR. That show, also sponsored by the Humanities Council, may be taken on the road.

The council's hope is that programs such as these will provide opportunities for people to express their fears and concerns. In Southern Maryland, hundreds of people, black and white, talked about the fires. Some other communities have considered these conversations with some trepidation, worrying about the revival of attitudes they think might be better left undisturbed.

Arson in a new Charles County housing development, however, removed the abstraction from these fears in that community. Some 300 people, black and white, turned out for one of the conversations last October at the Community College of Southern Maryland in La Plata, a suggestion that people were willing to face and explore the tensions.

Senator Obama and the Maryland Humanities Council are laying down the same challenge: Deal with anger and resentment before they become even more corrosive.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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