Friday, May 25, 2007
From The Washington Post…
Diversity Panel in Charles Gears Up
County Seeks Ways to Quell Racial Tensions
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
As the population has grown in Charles County, so too have the tensions.
In recent months, the Southern Maryland community has seen an outbreak of racist graffiti. This comes after an unsettling incident three years ago in which 27 homes under construction were destroyed or heavily damaged in the largest arson fire in state history.
Now, Charles officials, hoping to get ahead of the tensions, have launched a Blue Ribbon Commission on Diversity to examine population changes and explore ways to unite residents across racial and socioeconomic lines.
“There are people who are coming into the county bringing in new ideas and perspectives, and they may be clashing with or not in sync with people who have lived here all their lives,” said county Commissioner Edith J. Patterson (D-Pomfret), who spearheaded the creation of the blue-ribbon panel.
The committee of 25 people from different ethnic and economic backgrounds met for the first time Wednesday.
Indeed, Charles has changed from its rural, heavily white roots. An influx of African Americans has driven nearly all of the county's population growth since 2000, according to U.S. Census estimates. Black residents, a number of whom have moved in from neighboring Prince George’s County, now make up about 34 percent of Charles’s 139,000 residents.
The growth has brought problems with it. Just last weekend, police found “KKK” spray-painted on a home shed in White Plains. That incident was preceded by a number of hate crimes in which “White Power” and other inflammatory and derogatory slogans were scrawled in paint on homes, public school buildings, playground equipment and a church in the past year. Some of the alleged perpetrators were teenagers seeking attention, police said.
And in perhaps the most stinging example, more than two dozen homes in the upscale Hunters Brooke subdivision, many of them bought by black families, were destroyed or damaged after being set on fire in December 2004.
Five men were charged in the arson and have been convicted. All five are white. One of them testified that he targeted the development because a large number of African Americans were buying homes there.
“I think that there were too many events occurring in Charles County,” Patterson said. “There just had to be a stop to this. … Some places don’t want to acknowledge that there are challenges and issues, but I think that we should be applauded for saying, ‘Yep, these are issues and we are doing something about it.’”
Commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large) added, “We’re not going to bring things to closure until we start addressing things head on.”
County leaders applauded U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), whose district includes Charles, for helping the House pass legislation this month that would expand federal hate-crime protections and increase penalties for attackers. President Bush has threatened to veto the bill.
In Charles, the county commissioners recruited former New York congressman Major R. Owens (D), who as a leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus gained experience in addressing racial tensions, to lead the blue-ribbon commission and serve as an unpaid adviser.
Forming the committee is a “preventative social action,” Owens said in a telephone interview. He said the arson and hate crimes “had the seeds of something much worse,” and it is important that the government prepare for dramatic reactions from residents to the demographic changes.
“You can anticipate that there will be problems,” Owens said. “If you do anticipate it, why not prepare for it the way you do everything else?”
Owens added that Charles is “at a stage now where we should go beyond just the functions of government which deal with physical things like crime and fire and deal with the human elements there, which are in many ways more complicated, but if allowed to explode out of control, can create quite a number of problems for a locality for a long time.”
Alvin Cohen, 75, a retired college professor who lives in Waldorf, was appointed to the commission and said he hopes the group can address the tensions.
“The county is no longer rural,” he said. “It is no longer farming. It is no longer predominantly white. It is no longer just Methodist and Catholic. So there’s a tremendous amount of diversity. That creates some problems.”