By Ron Walters
-Guest Columnist-

( – When one Black man, James Byrd, was crushed to death by White racists in Texas, it caused an uproar; when Amadou Diallo was killed in a hail of gun bullets in New York, it was a national expose; in 1992, when Rodney King was beaten senseless by the LAPD, it caused a massive rebellion. But at 5 a.m. on Dec. 6, fires broke out in the Hunters Brook neighborhood in Charles County, a new housing development in southern Maryland, that gutted 12 homes and damaged 42 in a $10 million holocaust, and there is little reaction and no national outrage.

I wonder why a hate crime that involved torching houses, the largest arson case in recent American history, has attracted so little attention?

I watched with interest as the media reported the incident, but then dropped it. And I wondered when the major civil rights organizations would investigate an incident where most of those who lived in the new homes were Black. Little action has occurred raising questions about these fires; it has mostly been left to the local media, the local police and the Justice Department.


Immediately, the media posited two motives for the fires: one was something that I had never heard of, called “eco-terrorism,” which was an attempt to align this incident to the current fear that we are still under attack. The second reason was that some disgruntled or deranged person had set them.

How could one person have done this? Most importantly, how could people raised in America be so silent about the fact that this incident was squarely in the tradition of American terrorism against Blacks? Of course, no one began such speculation–and all of the Black reporters were either asleep or on Christmas vacation.

Perhaps I was sensitive to this because I passed through southern Maryland on my way to a summer place in Virginia on the banks of the Potomac River and on those trips, I noticed how the Black population was pushing South into the historic preserve of many rural Southern Whites. Many times, I wondered what would happen when the thunderous movement of the Black working class, some of whom were now affluent, pushed out of the adjacent Prince George’s County and further south where Blacks were in the minority, but where the echos of Southern attitudes are still distinct.

Working-class Whites had moved out of Prince George’s County because of the influx of Blacks from the District of Columbia, making PG county the largest collection of affluent Blacks in the world. Whites had pushed on to Calvert County and South into Charles County, a place where slavery was a widespread practice, and where they were making their last stand to preserve what many had sought–a majority White social and cultural geographical space.

But here came the Brothers and Sisters, looking to build more decent housing and wanting to do without a long commute. This movement fueled the resentment that was the fuel for the combustion that led to the decision and planning to torch Blacks out of their space. At this writing, the “eco-terrorism” theory has been scrapped and something more familiar has been instituted as a motive, and conspiracy of White males has begun to be unraveled.

This racial terrorism was the stuff that torched nearly 100 or so Black churches in the mid-1990s–so many that it led to an investigation by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. And because they were still doing that in 2000, it sparked a discussion of having a serious hate crimes bill.

While we should respect the feelings of those who want to note the incident and move on, the problem is that moving on smacks of sweeping racism under the rug on the one hand and, on the other, buying into the conservative rhetoric that racism is dead and we don’t need strong hate crimes laws.

The FBI has taken an interest in the case and if things work out, it will be the first major test on racial issues of the new Hispanic Attorney General. Let’s see how George Bush, the “compassionate conservative,” treats this. In the meantime, I don’t want to hear from my Black Brothers and Sisters that old-time racism is dead, or that we don’t need to keep fighting the newer forms.