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We may not be overly racist, but we do show a disturbing pattern

April 09, 2006|By Tim Rowland

At a recent Hagerstown Council meeting, Mayor Bob Bruchey took the time to read into the record a statement proclaiming that the city is not racist.

OK, nothing wrong with that. A good thing to have on the record. Except for one problem. The mayors of towns that do not have pressing racial issues generally do not go around issuing statements saying as much.

Had Richard Nixon not been crooked, he never would have had the occasion to say "I am not a crook."

Bruchey is a salesman, and he knows we have a selling job to do. We need to sell to the state on the notion that we are not what we have appeared to be over the past several years. In that time, we tried to mend fences with Willie Mays, but he was scorned for a second time and has since washed his hands of the community once and for all. A rogue cop is thought by federal authorities to be the author of racially hateful letters and phone calls to blacks. And even though we elected a black council member, certain elements in the community were clearly lying in wait for her to make a mistake and pounced with uncommon venom when she, being human, did.

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All these made state or national headlines, leaving the mayor in the position of having to put out the fire.

We're not racist, it's just that - that what? It's our bad luck that we keep getting caught?

The peddlers of snake oil and racism always try to play it off as something else. It's not about Willie Mays, it's about veterans. It's not about racial hatred, it's about one bad apple, the kind you find in all communities. It's not about race, it's about equal treatment under the law.

But ask yourself, what's an outsider looking in going to say? "Firing off hate mail and picking a fight with a black superstar -nothing odd about that. Klan rallies? Yeah, that's pretty normal."

Outsiders are going to see a pattern, and until we see it as such, nothing will improve.

People who love and defend Hagerstown will say that we are no more or less racist than any other small town. I might amend this to say we are no more or less racist that any other small town with our peculiar demographic.

We have a very small percentage of native blacks, so there is little potential for interaction. But we have a high number of criminals released from the state pens who stick around. The white cons blend in, the black cons don't. So when we see a black face in the newspaper, often as not it's someone from Baltimore or New York who once again is on the wrong side of the law.

But even so, it is dangerous to fall into the "we are no more or less" trap, because that implies contentment with the status quo. If the average small town is 20 percent racist, does that mean we should be happy if we fall into the 18-22 percentile?

Even if we are average, that's no excuse to stop working for racial harmony, or forget to encourage our children to judge people by their character, not by skin pigmentation.

It's no excuse not to confront people who traffic in racist undertones simply because they are angry and loud.

Bruchey may be correct that as a whole the community is not overly racist. But we certainly demonstrate a lot of tolerance of those who are, simply, I suspect, because they are so noisy and intimidating. We allowed a relative few to take control of the Willie Mays situation. No one (save the police, to their credit) seemed terribly concerned, or even believing, when hate mail started showing up in black-owned mailboxes.

Even if Hagerstown is not more biased than similiar communities, it certainly seems angrier. And this anger is not limited to race. Other targets include people with money, people without money, outsiders or anyone connected with education. I'm familiar with lots of small communities, and this is the only one I know where people think it's a normal, Christian thing to write letters to the editor telling gays they are going to burn in hell - bigotry thinly veiled with the phony caveat of "Oh, we don't hate the sinner, we hate the sin."

According to federal affidavits, Parson-McBean received a letter telling her to resign or she would be "burned on a cross." A gay city worker received a letter saying in part, "oh well, just another worthless aids infected faggot dead, the more the better."

Chalking this up to one disturbed individual who is now behind bars is like stamping on one cockroach and assuring yourself that you've wiped out the problem. Blacks know better. Gays know better. People who keep their ears open for off hand comments in the supermarket checkout lines know better. They know that cultures breed individuals.

As such, this is not a problem to be fixed by a task force or a study group. This is work for each of us as individuals. I need to look in my heart, see what's there, and do any weeding that may be necessary.

There are those who want no change, who would superimpose the attitudes of the '50s over the year 2006. Of these, there can be little doubt that Hagerstown has a greater percentage than most. We cannot let them go unchallenged, or let their loud voices influence weak or impressionable minds or pull our own hearts, inch by inch, back in time.

Bruchey is absolutely correct in this regard: The community has far more good people than bad. A Klan rally a couple of years ago brought out far more anti-racism protesters than klansmen.

And upon seeing the dissent, the look in those klansmens' eyes wasn't a look of evil, it was a look of uncertainty. Perhaps they themselves were not bad people. Perhaps they had just never had anyone in their lives before to tell them that their views were misguided.

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