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Urban Rhythms

Black, White, and Gray

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 5/30/2001

Once, in a column a long time ago, I accused Orioles fans of racism for booing then-first baseman Eddie Murray. A colleague ran me down and shouted in my face that he'd found my piece very offensive.

"You paint everybody with a broad brush, and that's totally unfair," he said angrily. "Did you ever consider that some of those fans just may be booing Murray for reasons that have nothing at all to do with race?"

Upon reflection, I decided my colleague had a point. At the time, Murray had been highly critical of the team's front office and demanded to be traded. His bitterness was manifest on the field. Some said his unhappiness was infecting the whole team. So I wrote a follow-up column in which I apologized for jumping to conclusions and acknowledged that it is possible for white fans to be angry at a black player simply because they don't like his attitude.

On another occasion, I noted that several unrelated civil-rights complaints--against a national restaurant chain, a health spa, and area nightclubs--illustrate how some business owners allow their personal bigotry to get in the way of profits. The same colleague cornered me in the hall.

"I can't believe you did it again!" he exclaimed, his face glowing beet-red with frustration. "Just because a black customer gets treated badly in an establishment doesn't mean the owner's a bigot. I know for a fact that the service [at the restaurant chain] is terrible--and it's terrible regardless of the race, creed, or color of the customer."

This time he was wrong. In each case, the courts had ruled that the businesses had established specific procedures to turn away or discourage black customers. Employees who violated those procedures were reprimanded or fired. And in each case, employees were told that blacks were to be excluded because white customers felt more comfortable that way. Written documentation and employee testimony corroborated the allegations.

It struck me then, though I didn't write about it, that my colleague was refusing to acknowledge the possibility of racism even in the face of convincing evidence.

So here's the moral: Sometimes those who accuse others of racism are too quick to do so. And sometimes those who deny that racism exists are being, well, disingenuous, either with themselves or with everyone else. This is the double-edged nature of raising race as an issue: It is too important to ignore, yet raising it almost guarantees the end of meaningful dialogue.

All of which brings us to the inflammatory example of Baltimore police Commissioner Edward Norris, who is white, and Deputy Commissioner Barry Powell, who is black.

When Norris fired Powell on May 11, folks took predictable positions. Some played the race card, even though Powell was part of a rainbow quartet of top commanders fired that day--a perfect balance of two blacks, two whites. Meanwhile, others have vigorously denied that racism was even a possibility, as though no man or woman in the history of this charming city has ever been victimized by bigotry.

Interestingly, neither side has offered much proof either way. Therefore, as a public service, I am going to examine the question as a hypothetical case. Should Norris have kept Powell on the job simply because he is black? Absolutely not. Race has nothing to do with competence. Argue that Powell's nearly 30 years on the force give him an important understanding of the city, or that he had built a special relationship with communities that was too precious to toss aside, and you might have a case.

Let's pretend that this--keeping Powell on the job simply because he's black--is what Powell's supporters really meant to say when they kept harping on the fact that he was the highest-ranking African-American on the force. If so, they damaged their case, perhaps irreparably. Trust, understanding, and competence in a police commander are qualities too important to the entire city to allow to be overshadowed by a superficial issue such as skin color. A white commander who had built trust and understanding and who had demonstrated competence would be just as precious.

But let's suppose Powell's supporters were trying to tell us that he was fired for shortcomings that might have resulted in a stern lecture or a reprimand had he been white. If so, this is too serious an issue to dismiss out of hand. And those concerns are not ameliorated by some sort of careful quota system--replacing a black commander with another black commander might still be racism if the first commander did not deserve to be fired. Diversity today means more than tolerating a black face or two around the office. It means learning to respect diverse perspectives, even if those perspectives are at odds with your own. It means allowing blacks to be as strong-willed and opinionated as you allow whites to be. Some top executives have learned this. Others keep shuffling through black faces until they find a personality sufficiently meek.

Too often in controversies such as the Powell firing race gets used as a shorthand to describe problems that are far more nuanced and complicated. That is unfortunate. Powell's supporters are obligated to explain their concerns more carefully. And Norris' supporters are obligated to sit still and listen.

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