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Urban Rhythms

Pols Apart

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 4/10/2002

Morgan State University students describe the campus' library as a dismal place--cramped, dimly lit, and uncomfortable. They say many of the books there are obsolete. They say they are forced to go to libraries at other schools to get key reference materials assigned in their classes. They describe the library staff as valiant but overburdened, working against the odds to hold the place together.

White members of the Maryland House of Delegates Appropriations Committee that cut $3.1 million for the Morgan library project from the state's capital budget can be excused for not knowing about the condition of facilities at the traditionally black college. A recent national Washington Post poll indicated that 40 percent to 60 percent of white Americans believe that blacks are better off or equal in almost every respect than whites. Therefore, it is safe to assume that white state delegates pictured Morgan students luxuriating in some vast, gleaming state-of-the-art edifice where liveried servants serve them champagne cocktails and scurry to fetch and carry their books.

But the chairperson of the Appropriations Committee, Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings (D-Baltimore City), ought to know better. He's African-American. He represents Baltimore, which is Morgan's home. He is a graduate of the university.

Yet Rawlings reportedly led the vote against that $3.1 million--as if a library was mere frippery; as if Rawlings, through some bizarre intellectual gyration, shared his colleagues' apparent fantasy that Morgan's predominantly black student body is better off than students at any other state campus.

Rawlings didn't stand alone, of course. When Morgan students marched on Annapolis in protest of the decision last week, they found other African-American delegates strangely noncommittal. The African-Americans in the state Senate were another story. They made sure the Senate's version of the capital budget included the $3.1 million. But when the final bell rang on the session April 8, Ýhe library money wasn't in the budget.

Ultimately, though, this column isn't about Morgan's library. That will get done, eventually; while withholding the $3.1 million start-up money this year, legislators promised to fund the full $53 million project next year. This column is about what a travesty it is that students had to fight so hard for a service their peers on other campuses accept as a given, and that their foes in this struggle were black elected officials who should have been their staunchest allies.

By the way, this has not been a very pretty session for the black state legislators, especially those in the House. For example, all but three African-American delegates voted for House Bill 1150, a measure that would allow white males to qualify as minority contractors and participate in the state's minority set-aside program. Del. Clarence Davis (D-Baltimore City) voted against it; delegates Emmett Burns (D-Baltimore City/ County) and Carolyn Howard (D-Prince George's County) abstained.

If experts had determined that white businesspeople had become an endangered species in need of special protection, well, at least there would be grounds for debate. But Robert Clay, president of the Maryland Metropolitan Association of Minority Contracts, says delegates told him they hadn't read the bill and voted for it without knowing what it would do. Once again, the Senate came to the rescue and killed the measure.

In another less-than-stellar showing, the Legislative Black Caucus mounted only token resistance to the governor's redistricting plan, even though many African-American legislators contend the new electoral map dilutes the strength of black voters in Baltimore City and in Baltimore, Prince George's, and Montgomery counties.

And when a group of the city's most prominent black ministers traveled to Annapolis early in the session to meet with the black caucus, they found that only a handful of their representatives bothered to keep the appointment. Those who did show up exchanged a few pleasantries and then hurried away to what they described as more important business. The ministers were, well, disappointed in the way they were treated.

It's as if black representatives have forgotten where they come from. Worse, it's as if they never knew. They remind me of the woman with seven children who insisted she was still a virgin because she'd never learned to associate what happened in the bedroom with making babies. Our legislators act like they have not made the connection between the support they receive on Election Day and what they're supposed to be doing in Annapolis when the General Assembly is in session.

Most of my disdain is directed at black House members, who seem helpless under Rawlings' sway. Black senators, led by the venerable Clarence Blount (D-Baltimore City), have often been forced to play the role of parents, scrambling after the toddlers to keep them from doing mischief. Have African-American delegates ever been quite so useless as they are today? Morgan's students might want to look it up. It'd make an interesting project in a government class. Of course, they'd have to travel to a library on another campus to do their research.

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