White Community Adapts to Obama Reality

WORRIED by racial tensions churned up by the US presidential election, teachers at one US high school braced for the worst in their majority white community the morning after Barack Obama was elected the country’s first black president.

To counter what she called “unsettling bigotry” in Maryland’s Carroll County, Westminster High English teacher Laura Doolan wrote a 30-minute lesson for all students to give them a chance to discuss the election and correct misconceptions, such as the widespread rumour that Obama is Muslim.

“Several teachers came to me astounded by what they were hearing. They just didn’t realise that students would be so openly racist, that students would … say, ‘I don’t want a black president. I don’t trust black people,’” Doolan said.

Courtney Case, a white 17-year-old at the school, was unnerved by racist text messages circulating before the November 4 election. “I was completely shocked because they were from friends of mine who I didn’t even know had those feelings.”

In the end, there were no racial incidents at Westminster High School after Democrat Obama beat Republican John McCain, but minor physical and verbal fights did occur at several other county schools.

Carroll County is one of hundreds of majority white communities facing changing demographics that will turn the United States into a “majority minority” country — where former minorities such as blacks and Hispanics are in the majority — by 2042. Maryland is due to reach that point by 2025 or earlier, according to US census projections.

Observers have described Obama as a “post-racial” politician since his election campaign dwelt little on racial issues and more on how Americans can bridge divides of all kinds.

But some areas like Westminster are still coming to terms with a past that included open Ku Klux Klan rallies 20 years ago, and a rash of racist graffiti at the high school just last spring.

Located 50 miles north of Washington, which is about 70% black, this former farming community has seen its share of rapid growth and growing diversity.

Suburban developments now nestle between farms, and the county has ethnic restaurants, a growing Muslim community, Jewish synagogues and even a Hindu temple. But its demographics have not changed much over the years.

About 94% of Carroll’s 170 000 residents are white, 2,2% are black, and even smaller numbers are Latino or Asian, according to the most recent US census data.

The county is largely Christian and conservative, backing McCain by 64% to Obama’s 32,6%.
The days when KKK members in white robes handed out leaflets on Main Street are long past, and many residents, like Doolan, are working to improve race relations.

Civic groups offer English lessons for immigrants and churches sponsor interfaith dialogues.

But many minorities say they still face subtle daily acts of discrimination and prejudice throughout the county.

Last spring, a school board member, Jeffrey Morse, resigned amid a storm of public controversy after he used a racial slur to describe some black rocks at a school construction site.

Larry Brumfield, a retired black chemical engineer, moved to the area 24 years ago with his first wife, who was white.

Early on, someone pasted a bumper sticker on his car that read, “We’re watching you.” Later, neighbours invited his wife along on an outing, but asked her not to mention that she was married to a black man. His daughters were called “zebras”.

“We just have to do more to engage each other, be in each other’s homes more,” said Brumfield, who helped found Common Ground on the Hill, a national programme that aims to bring people of all backgrounds together through arts and music.

Jim Rodriguez, head of athletics for county schools, lauded the school system for its efforts to address racial issues, but said the community has a long way to go.

“Unfortunately, some things are under the table in terms of people’s feelings,” said Rodriguez, who was born in Miami to parents with Cuban and Puerto Rican backgrounds.

Mokhtar Nasir, the chief of staff at Carroll Hospital Center, said he hasn’t faced much overt discrimination during his 13 years in the county over his Lebanese-Muslim heritage.

Still, he says, many co-workers don’t recognise his holidays, and some ask year after year if he had a nice Christmas.

Case, the Westminster High student, said the lingering racism in the county was discouraging, but she was heartened by the students’ spontaneous response when racist graffiti was painted all over the school’s entrance courtyard last spring.

Within hours, she said, students and janitors removed the ugly words and replaced them with signs underscoring the unity of the school.

“I was really, really angry at first, but then I ended up being really proud of how our school reacted to it,” she said. — Reuters.