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Sent: Sunday, August 06, 2006 12:01 AM
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Debating Race in Cyberspace
D.C. E-Mail Lists Allow Spirited Discussions at a Safe Distance

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 5, 2006; B01

It didn't take long for the e-mail lists to light up.

Andy Solberg, a well-liked police commander, had been reassigned after
saying that black people were an unusual sight in Georgetown.

Faster than anyone could call an old-fashioned,
down-at-the-elementary-school community meeting, e-mail lists in
Cleveland Park, Chevy Chase and elsewhere were abuzz.

First came a flurry of testimonials for the embattled acting commander
of the 2nd Police District, defending him and sometimes sticking up for
his comments. And then came the angry replies, from people appalled by
what seemed to be open support among their neighbors for racial
profiling as a police policy.

Suddenly people more accustomed to going online to compare contractor
references and complain about missed recycling pickups found themselves
engulfed in a forum about race and crime in a city long defined by both.

"So, yes, black people do live in Georgetown, but their numbers are very
few. It is not racist to state this fact," a man wrote on the Cleveland
Park e-mail list. "To be suspicious at the sight of a couple of young
black men hanging out along the quiet residential streets of Georgetown
after 2 o'clock in the morning is not racial profiling, it is common sense."

The next day came a reply: "No, it is racial profiling. If you think
they are suspicious primarily because they are black, that is the
definition of racial profiling. We can't have people suggesting that
citizens should call 911 whenever they see a black man in their
neighborhood."

And so it went for days, a raw, impromptu debate almost unimaginable
anywhere but online -- fueled by the immediacy of Internet communication
and stimulated by the sense of security that comes with composing your
thoughts in the solitude of your home.

Often people are reluctant to talk openly and deeply about race,
especially among strangers. But in the furor that erupted after
Solberg's comments, people expressed themselves with a candor that to
some was open and refreshing and to others was abrasive and ignorant.

Solberg had made his remarks at a community meeting July 10, a day after
a white man from Britain was slain in Georgetown. Four black people were
charged in the killing. Urging anxious residents to report suspicious
activity to police, Solberg said, "This is not a racial thing to say
that black people are unusual in Georgetown. This is a fact of life."
The next day, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey reassigned him, saying his
comments at the meeting were unacceptable.

Upper Northwest, where in just a few months Solberg had established
himself as a fast-acting commander, was soon up in arms, demanding his
reinstatement. After Solberg made a public apology, Ramsey reinstated
him -- but by then, the public debate was on.

"He is not a racist. He was doing his job. He may not have been
politically correct but he was direct," one woman wrote on the Cleveland
Park list a couple of days after Solberg's reassignment. " . . .
Sometimes, you know something is not right, but how do you tell the
police without sounding racist?"

A couple of days later, a woman offered her take. "Sure people should
remain vigilant and report suspicious activity, but stating that black
people are unusual in Georgetown is racist. Tell that to all the black
people who come to Georgetown to shop or eat out, or all of the students
who attend Ellington, Georgetown U, GW, etc."

This was not the first time that a big issue such as race or class had
surfaced on a neighborhood e-mail list in the District. But the breadth
and energy of the debate were a sign of how important the lists have
become as more and more people turn to them, often to talk to the people
just down the street.

"I think it was really healthy," said Peggy Robin, who moderates the
4,300-member Cleveland Park list with her husband, Bill Adler. "I think
it got a lot of dialogue going that otherwise never would have happened."

E-mail lists are changing the way neighbors communicate. In many
respects, it's for the better. But not always, say some people, and few
subjects are as fraught with possibilities -- and perils -- as race.

Which is why Don Squires of Shepherd Park thought "long and hard" before
diving into the debate.

"Those kind of subjects do not do well on Listservs," said Squires, who
knows Solberg from Shepherd Elementary, the Northwest Washington school
their children have attended. "I think those subjects are best discussed
face to face, in person, so people can explain fully what they mean and
things are not misinterpreted. Listservs are prone to people
overreacting and people dashing off quick e-mails without thinking."

In the Chevy Chase neighborhood, the always busy list of more than 1,700
members was even busier than usual with discussions about the commander.

"I have received several offline messages from people who tell me I just
don't get it," one woman wrote. "I find it interesting that the writers,
none of whom I know personally, all assume I am Caucasian and/or have
never suffered discrimination. I don't want to reopen that discussion
but only want to point out that many of us tend to make snap judgments
about a person based on a few words with no context."

Reggie Sanders wrote back: "Perhaps the reason you don't get it is
because you may not have to. You are so concerned about Officer
Solberg's reputation and future job prospects you gloss over the fact
that his words, as a sworn public servant, could lead to a larger issue
affecting many lives."

Sanders, a public relations consultant who recently moved from Chevy
Chase to Manor Park, said he was stunned at how unconcerned some of his
old neighbors were about the substance of Solberg's comments.

"A lot of these people have grown up and gone on with most of their
lives and never had any interaction with people who didn't look like
them," he said in an interview.

So he spoke up, not so much to scold but to enlighten others who might
not have been stopped at gunpoint by police, as he once was, he said.

"The Listserv gave us a place to talk about this. I didn't get into the
race-baiting and the name-calling and the smart-aleck remarks. What I
was trying to say was I want to keep the dialogue going," he said.

And that is the goal, said the founder and moderator of the Chevy Chase
list, Mary Rowse. "People are given an opportunity to weigh in on any
subject, and people weigh in thoughtfully," she said.

At an Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting or at Starbucks, that
wouldn't necessarily happen, she said. People would be cut off, by the
clock or by another person. On the e-mail list, people actually have
time to think about what someone said and about what they are going to
say in reply, and what they say reaches far more people than it ever
would during an ordinary neighborhood meeting or a stop at the coffeehouse.

But civility is not always easy to maintain, particularly when a
contentious, complicated topic such as race surfaces, as it did here.

"People felt like it gave them free rein to say and do things that they
might not otherwise publicly say," Michele Pollak of Chevy Chase said in
an interview.

Pollak, a former civil rights lawyer who is white, wrote of black
colleagues and friends who had endured particular scrutiny from police
simply because they were black. "I was offended by the thought that in a
city that is majority African American that anyone should say there's
any place that an African American should not be," she said.

And the sort of candor she saw on the list was telling, she said. "I
think race is a hard thing to talk about, but I found it interesting
that people found it not so hard to talk about it, when it came to
racial profiling, because they viewed it as a sensible thing."

Deborah Tannen, an author and Georgetown University linguist, said the
Internet "clearly makes people freer with hostile invective. . . .
There's the anonymity, there's the speed. You can dash it off and hit
that send button."

The positive side, she said, is that "everyone gets their say."

But it can make for a confusing confluence of private and public, she
said. "It feels private. It's your home, it's your computer screen, it's
almost like you're writing in a journal. But if you were standing with
500 people facing you, you would have the sense that you're in a public
forum, which is what you are in."

And as democratic and diverse as the e-mail exchanges can be, they are
not perfect.

"Listservs are helpful and allow people to express their views," Cathy
Pollin of Chevy Chase said as she read the newspaper at Starbucks, "but
it's not the same thing as having to sit across from another person and
listen to other ideas. Real communication isn't just about what you say.
It's about how you look, how you move. And I think we're losing that."

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