Stirring the pot / Why we can't stop now

December 18, 1997

Earlier this month I had a long conversation with a reader who was upset by syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts' Dec. 10 piece on the decision of a New Orleans school district to rename a school named after George Washington because the Father of Our Country had been a slaveholder.

Our talk was good-natured, lasting about 45 minutes and covering a variety of topics related to the issue of race in America. But boiled down to its essence, his argument was that repeatedly stirring the pot of racial resentments does no good, and may do a great deal of harm. Let the issue alone for a while, he said, and quiet progress will take place.

Few will deny that much progress has taken place since the passage of the civil rights legislation in the 1960s. But at the risk of offending this concerned reader, and many others perhaps, it hasn't been enough.


Too many people accepted the civil rights legislation as the law of the land, without changing what was in their hearts. They have done what they're required to do, but no more. And then when some event arises, like the O.J. Simpson murder trial, to make us see how differently the races perceive similar events - and something as important as the justice system - they express surprise.

I'm not suprised. Racial prejudice still exists for many, hidden away like those cigarettes you promised to quit, but didn't. Like some guilty pleasure, many savor it secretly in clandestine defiance of what's acceptable publicly.

Nor am I surprised that the nation's largest civil rights organization, the NAACP, is having an internal debate over whether integration, one of the top goals of the civil rights movement, is still worth striving for. How long do you knock on the door when you know that the people inside really don't want to answer, or are only letting you in because the law says they have to?

Some white people of my acquaintance tell me that black people ought to stop holding so tightly to the memory of the bad old days of slavery and segregation that followed. I didn't own slaves, they say, so why should I feel responsible for what happened way back when?

Well, telling black people to forget the bad old days, which, after all, were a reality of daily life for many people still living today, is like telling the Jews to get over the Holocaust. In both cases, human beings were treated like property. If the slaveholders didn't kill the people they'd imprisoned, it was only because they had a financial stake in keeping them healthy enough to work the fields.

No, nobody's going to forget the bad old days, especially when many black people suspect that many whites wouldn't be unhappy if the South did rise again. I can accept the argument that today's white citizens aren't responsible for the racial injustices of the past, but not the contention that they have no role to play in making a better society today.

So how do we begin? As I said before the last Hagerstown city election, it's time to encourage some black candidates for local office. Young African-American youngsters need to see that they are not shut out of local government. And given the statements made in the recent curriculum audit about the over-representation of black students in special education classes, a black member of the school board wouldn't hurt either.

But beyond encouraging qualified candidates to run, there's also some personal things that should be done. For a number of years, I've tried to attend the Washington County NAACP's Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship presentations with my son to show support for these young achievers, and to counter whatever negative feedback he may be getting in the community about those of different races.

But these events come once, maybe twice a year. I ought to be doing more, and not accepting the excuses I make to myself that there's not enough time to do everything that needs to be done.

Just what action I ought to take, I'm not sure. The man I spoke to talked of a pot of foul-smelling stuff that ought not to stirred, for fear something worse might escape. He's counting on this wretched stew cooling off and eventually being swept away, like the crumbs from last week's dirty dishes.

But I fear that if this pot is not stirred, and if the hate and indifference isn't ladeled off like fat from a batch of homemade soup, we will someday break through the hardened crust to find a society of competing interest groups, each grabbing what they can for their "tribe" without ever considering how to act together for the common good.

Should we delay action until we have the recipe for success? No, because the pot's already on the stove, and as any kid who's been to the Children's Village fire-safety program will tell you, it's downright dangerous to forget about the stove when the heat is on.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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