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ALL THEY HAVE heard is silence.

No apology. No explanation of why they -- five School Board members -- were called racists for trying to hold the superintendent accountable for a mistake. No show of public support from any African-American; no one who thought it was wrong and spoke out.

It has been five months, and they have not heard a word. They have no illusions they ever will.

"I don't expect any (apology)," said Helene Kramer, ex-board president. "Although it would have been nice."

James Harris just announced he would not seek another go-round as Buffalo school superintendent. The post-mortems focused on racial healing. Yet no one mentioned the five School Board members who, five months ago, were victims of racial politics. The five wanted the superintendent, who is black, to explain an administrative screw-up that delayed $8.9 million in state aid. When they pressed him, he resigned in a huff. The five, all white, voted to accept the resignation (which he soon rescinded).

For that, they were called racists by Arthur Eve, the area's most powerful black politician, and Frank Mesiah, the head of the NAACP's local chapter. They became the target of slings and smears. They got no public support from top elected officials of any color.

Then people found out more about them. The board president, Ms. Kramer, was married to a black man and named her two sons after Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. Marlies Wesolowski didn't have a white friend until she was 13. Anthony Luppino campaigned for two black mayoral candidates and backed Jesse Jackson for president. Jack Coyle cut his political teeth with George McGovern. Deborah Bang is a minister's wife who thinks inner cities are America's apartheid.

All backed Harris' aggressive minority hiring policies and favor racial quotas at magnet schools. Far from closet Klan sympathizers, they are among a dying breed of bleeding-heart liberals. If they don't clear the racial bar, none of us do.

Yet they were hammered and hung out to dry. Five months later, there has been not a word of regret or reconciliation from those who carelessly accused them, or those who followed their lead.

"Part of me is still very hurt," said Mrs. Wesolowski. "Even now, there are people who don't know me who look at me with the question in their eyes -- is she a racist?"

Blacks in America have been victimized more times than anyone can count. Many of those times, at least some white people spoke out.

Whites risked their lives to march for civil rights in the '60s. Closer to home, at least some whites condemned a Galleria Mall ban on inner-city buses that led to the traffic death of Cynthia Wiggins, a black mall worker. There were whites who "crossed" the racial barrier and spoke out.

There was no such crossover with the School Board Five. Their characters could have been defended, even by those who disagreed with what they did. It didn't happen.

Luppino once thought political progressives like himself were natural allies with minorities against racism. Now he's not so sure.

"Disheartened is a good way to put it," said Luppino, who's in his third term in a racially diverse district. "I wonder if that sort of unity is possible. I find myself searching for answers."

Maybe it's an easier step for whites than blacks. Given the scarcity of blacks behind executive desks, Harris or any other black CEO is a symbol. Blacks breaking ranks to defend the character of the School Board Five would undoubtedly hear grumblings in church and at the corner store. One black parent activist told me that's why she was reluctant to speak. When black board member Jim Williams last year publicly criticized Harris, he was denounced from pulpits.

It's not easy standing up for what's right. But silence deepens the racial divide.

"I was devastated at the time, but you move on," said Coyle. "It's more important what the children of the city get than the fact I got branded. You can't react to intimidation."

I'm not naive. There were white people happy to see a black man in authority squirm. Racism is as obvious as a black man in Texas getting dragged behind a pickup truck, as subtle as a black family being served last at a restaurant. When you've been pounded for so long, it's natural to close ranks behind any cause or symbol, no matter how imperfect.

But marching in lockstep, however questionable the cause, is part of what has us in a racial gridlock. Blindly lining up behind color, it seems to me, is just racism in a different package.

Harris' performance has been mixed at best. The board members had a right to ask him what went wrong. He had an obligation to answer.

Whites, and white-dominated institutions, are far more often the racial victimizers than victims. In the grand scheme, five white board members getting branded is a blip on the screen. But until people of all colors speak out against every wrong, we'll keep measuring racial progress in baby steps.

"We were not allowed to treat (Harris) like a human being," said Kramer. "It was unfair to him and unfair to us.

"When does the time come when we can treat all people the same?" she asked. "When can we say people are wonderful if they are, and not-so-wonderful if they're not, without being accused of having some sort of agenda? Until we get to that point, we're going to have problems like this."

The silence is ominous.

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