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TOWN OFFICIALS NEED TO LOSE THEIR BLINDERS

The telling moment came about halfway through the meeting. Dennis Gabryszak said two words. Two words that spoke volumes about the problem in Cheektowaga. Two words that told you why Town Hall was stuffed Monday night with unhappy African-Americans -- so unhappy they were willing to stand or crowd into hallways where they could only hear what was going on.

They told the Town Board that entering Cheektowaga felt like crossing the Mason-Dixon line. They talked about black drivers stopped and questioned by Cheektowaga cops. They talked about groups of black teenagers treated worse than white teenagers at the Walden Galleria.

Gabryszak, the town supervisor, was doing pretty well for a man under siege. He called for another meeting with mall officials to hear individual complaints. Then he said the two words: "Afro-American."

"We will do what's right," said Gabryszak, "for the Afro-American community."

The phrase "Afro-American" was met with a groan.

That's a big part of the problem. We are dealing with an institutional mentality as outdated as the leisure suit. A mentality that needs to be grabbed by the collar and dragged into the new century.

Nobody says "Afro-American" anymore. And they haven't since "The Jeffersons" was on prime time. Anybody who doesn't know that is seriously out of touch. What we have here isn't -- at least in most cases -- overt racism, but a severe case of cultural blindness.

I've known Gabryszak a long time. He's a decent guy. Bruce Chamberlin, the town police chief, is no Bull Connor. In fact, Chamberlin is one of the more enlightened chiefs around. When black teenager Cynthia Wiggins died five years ago, nobody had to explain to him how subtle racism kept her bus from the inner city off Galleria property and forced her to cross a dangerous street. I heard him talk about it. I don't believe he tells his cops to make life tough for every dark face.

But when you live and work in a town that's nearly all white, you have to make the effort to see -- and understand -- life on the other side. Otherwise, you end up looking at a crowd of angry faces.

The cultural divide was obvious Monday. The hundreds crammed into Town Hall faced what looked like the Charge of the White Brigade: an all-white Town Board, with a white town supervisor, a white police chief and a handful of other officials -- all white. Chamberlin heads a 133-officer force without a single minority.

That's the problem. You can't preach diversity -- as Chamberlin did Monday night -- without practicing it. You can't -- in the year 2001 -- fall back on residency requirements and other excuses for not recruiting minority officers harder, or sooner, without sounding ridiculous.

"It makes us an easy target. I know it does," said Chamberlin. "We've got a (minority) recruiting campaign this year that's way beyond anything we've ever done."

As the saying goes, better late than never.

Granted, the town is more than 90 percent white. The attitudes of police and public officials here aren't much different than in other suburban towns. But it needs to be different here, more than anywhere else.

The region's mega-mall, which pulls in a rainbow coalition of consumers, is here. Two years ago, the pastor of a relocated church said town officials tried to drive them back to Buffalo. The county bar association said last week that poor people arrested in Cheektowaga often spend weeks in lockup, waiting for the court to give Legal Aid a heads-up.

Now an attorney is about to file a class-action lawsuit for alleged police abuses.

I don't know if an elderly black woman was dragged out of her car by police two summers ago, as a lawsuit claims, or if a young black driver was locked up for no reason but an abundance of melanin. Black residents say they are routinely stopped, when walking, and asked where they're going. It's ridiculous stuff that saps people's spirit. But my sense is the problem is more about a few bad apples -- and some thick cultural blinders -- than a department rotten to the core.

A minister Monday said all town employees could use diversity training, a few sessions at a cultural boot camp. It's a place to leave the leisure suits behind, and the attitudes that go with them.

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