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White Like Me

Confessions of an O'Malley Voter

Tom Chalkley

By Andy Markowitz | Posted 9/22/1999

I'm in my car the morning after the primary election, listening, for my own perverse reasons, to Alan Prell on WBAL. When I turned the radio on, Prell was talking to a guy named Mike who was in a state of dudgeon, apparently over a previous caller who'd backed Lawrence Bell III, and with whom Prell had discussed the racial composition of Martin O'Malley's support.

If O'Malley was black, Mike said, he'd have gotten 100 percent of the vote, not just 53. But blacks, they vote for their own. How else to explain nearly 20,000 votes for Bell? Mike didn't sound all Aryan Blood Brotherhood; he came off like one of those white guys who just thinks he's being very direct and logical, speaking the plain truth.

Yeah, I should know better than to pay attention to the railings of a talk-show crank. (Prell, at least, treated the guy like an idiot.) But I had a hard time shaking Mike. We'd just come out of a primary in which blacks had voted for blacks by a 2-to-1 margin and whites had voted for whites by a 9-to-1 margin. And this guy is on my radio, asserting with complete confidence that blacks vote more by color, whites vote more on merit.

I was still brooding when I got to work, picked up my morning Sun, and read the front-page headline, just below the main election story: "In the voting booth, color took back seat."

Ah. Between them, Mike and this headline draw a pretty clear picture. Here is what we talk about when we talk about race. For "color took back seat," read: Black people voted for a white person. (Or, in the unwritten and unspoken shorthand, black people did the "right thing.") Color doesn't seem to have taken a back seat for many white folks.

This is the dirty little secret of the political/racial discussion in Baltimore. When whites talk about achieving colorblindness, they--we--are talking about what African-Americans do, how African-Americans act. Thus, in an election in which nine-tenths of one racial group voted for the candidate who looked like them, the story line (enshrined not just in The Sun but in much of the election-night TV coverage) is that we overcame divisiveness, got beyond race. The folks who howled when, in a pre-election story, The Sun quoted an African-American as saying he felt he had to vote for "my own" went out and voted for their own, far more monolithically than their black neighbors. And the Mikes in our midst (and I suspect there are a lot of them) remain convinced that it's those blacks who obsess about color.

The record on this matter is pretty clear. Generally, African-Americans in this city have been willing to vote across racial lines, and not just when they didn't have a choice. (See "Schaefer, William Donald.") Generally, whites have not, at least not when they had an option.

Much of the discussion of Mayor Kurt Schmoke's wasted legacy centers on the political and psychic difference between his sweeping into office with biracial support in 1987 and his unfurling the red, black, and green eight years later. But it's worth noting that in '87 and '91 his main competition was another African-American, Clarence "Du" Burns. The first time Schmoke faced a strong white challenger, Mary Pat Clarke, the vote was almost perfectly polarized. (Schmoke got 91 percent of the African-American vote, Clark 85 to 90 percent of the white vote, according to Arthur Murphy of PoliticomCreative, a political-consulting firm that tracks the numbers.) Schmoke's calculated racial appeal that year may have been a contributing factor, but if we're going to examine voters' motives--and the 1995 election is exhibit A for whites who believe blacks vote racially--we need to examine them across the board. If anyone wants to argue that the whites who voted for Clarke were smarter, purer of heart, or more civic-minded than the African-Americans who flocked to Schmoke, well, meet Mike.

I write this as a white person who (surprise) voted for O'Malley--who, more than that, urged others to do the same via this paper's endorsement, which I had a hand in crafting. I believe, honestly, that I did so because he was the best candidate, the most qualified to lead Baltimore out of its present peril. I believe, honestly, that Carl Stokes could have also made a fine mayor. Do I know with utter certainty that race had no bearing, at any level, on my choice of one over the other? No, and I don't think anyone does.

I do know that on Election Day I predicted Stokes would win. With Bell having self-destructed, I reasoned, African-American voters would shift to Stokes and carry him to victory. One of my co-workers, a fellow Euro-American whose sensitivity on racial matters I consider fairly unassailable, believed to the last that Bell could pull it out. He recalled that pre-election polls in 1995 showed Schmoke and Clarke neck and neck, but in the poll that counted, Schmoke was 20 points ahead; the hidden Schmoke vote then could be a hidden Bell vote now. Note that in both cases, we believed the election would turn on an outpouring of black support for a black candidate.

I was closer to the mark with another theory. If Bell was well and truly dead, I figured, the deciding factor could end up being how many white voters Stokes could convince to cross racial lines. The answer, it turned out, was precious few.

And, of course, I wasn't one of them. You'll be forgiven at this point for wondering if I haven't forgotten that the person I considered the best candidate actually won. I am happy that O'Malley will, in all likelihood, be the next mayor of Baltimore. I am happy that he won with a majority, a mandate to lead. It stands to reason that I would not be happier if fewer people, white or black, had voted for him.

What has put this little knot in the pit of my stomach is the aura of self-congratulation that immediately surrounded the result. In his post-election column, The Sun's Michael Olesker--whose racial bona fides are well established, in that, as he often reminds us in print, he was a high school buddy of Baltimore Afro-American publisher John Oliver--again trumpeted how we got beyond race. This column about transcending race was all about how African-Americans voted; there wasn't a word about what whites did. Here is Olesker on O'Malley's multiracial campaign commercials: "[T]he message was genuine: If you believe we suffer from racial divisions, if you believe we share fundamental problems that transcend race, then here is your candidate." The barely veiled subtext is that racial harmony means everybody coming together behind the white guy.

While he makes an easy target, it's not fair to single out Olesker. He no doubt believes that he's being expansive and inclusive, as do many Caucasians of presumably good faith. But it's the easiest thing in the world for a white person to talk about "going beyond race"; to praise the "courage," as Olesker put it in another column, of prominent blacks who supported O'Malley; to blast African-Americans who openly discuss their concerns about a majority-black city not having a black mayor. When we do, we reinforce the rules of the game: The burden of solving racial problems--and the blame for deepening them--lies with blacks.

I am not positing the white vote as some kind of conspiracy to "take back" the city. One of the reasons I was willing to back O'Malley is that I think his public actions show he recognizes the shades of gray in black-white issues--that he gets, for example, that racial discrimination within the police department matters a great deal outside the police department, and not just to African-Americans. I don't think most white Baltimoreans voted for O'Malley simply because he is white.

But by ignoring the numbers, by cheering black support for O'Malley and declaring victory, whites let themselves off the hook. We don't have to be accountable for how we vote, what we do; our good intentions have been sanctified by our brothers and sisters. We don't have to worry about considering the racial implications of how we deal with crime, with schools, with housing, with poverty, with the other issues of such great importance to our city. And in four years, or eight, or 12, when there is another election pitting white candidates against black, we'll moan again about division, about the race card, about African-Americans who focus on electing an African-American. And we'll march off to the polls and vote for our own.

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