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Gasparilla is a party that celebrates segregation

Something went wrong in Tampa on Saturday. About 450,000 people came to the city for a good time and walked away having once again legitimized a tradition that, by all rights, should never have started in the first place.

For African-Americans, Gasparilla in all its glory is nothing more than a holiday that we may patronize, but in which we may never fully participate.

Or, as Bob Gilder, chief of the Tampa Voter Registration Coalition, said so eloquently, "The role of black folks in Gasparilla is to catch the spent bullets, catch the candy and clean up."

At issue are the holiday's founders and supporters, Ye Mystic Krewe. Begun in 1904, the Krewe has been and seems destined to remain a white man's realm.

Little about this fraternity is unusual in modern-day America. The men themselves are considered the elite of Tampa, whose corporate ties and wealth make them the most powerful members of the community.

Like so many in America's exclusive country-club set, the membership points out that no black person has ever applied to join.

They argue that there is no open color bar - that fell in years past.

And the few spots that open up from year to year are reserved for close friends and family of current members.

What is not lost on the black community - which makes up a quarter of the city's population - is that people of African descent are not welcome in elite white social groups in this city or any other.

From Baltimore to Chicago to Los Angeles, African-Americans have been time and time again denied entry into segregated social settings.

Martin Luther King's dream of sitting down at the table of brotherhood is impossible when there is no table.

Equally as bad is that those who would in any other context denounce the segregationist aspect of the Krewe find themselves enjoying a fancy, down-home parade - and criticizing anyone who sees the larger issues at stake as the spoilsports of the city.

"Sometimes, though, you can't have a good time when you have a

conscience," a colleague reminds me.

Tampa's biggest indigenous festival is sponsored by the group.

Although the event itself is not racist, by attending, we as a community legitimize and ultimately approve the Krewe's exclusion of anyone who is not a wealthy white man: women, Hispanics and African-Americans.

And that legitimacy grows as the years pass and the crowds swell.

No one can ignore the efforts some Krewe members make to enhance racial progress in the black community - from corporate donations to sitting down and talking over issues concerning the community.

But the Krewe's exclusivity is disturbing unto itself. It is not something to be winked at in light of the good deeds some members do the rest of the year.

What does membership in such a group say about responsible leadership in America's next great city?

Because the city is so strongly tied to the event, it too is tarnished by the Krewe's exclusive membership. As all eyes turn to Tampa for the Super Bowl next year, a nation will be able to see that behind the veil of frivolity is a nasty disease that refuses to go away.

The result is that in subtle and not so subtle ways, we have not and will not make the kind of racial progress we should here or anywhere else in this country.

On one hand, we make efforts to erase our immoral and disgusting past while on the other, we nurse the atmosphere that ensures racial exclusion.

Thus, the racism that has been a part of Tampa since its inception smolders under the facade of a well-balanced city and burns through from time to time, leaving its victims wondering where it came from.

In a city as segregated as this one, there can be no stronger message than that symbolized by the lily-white makeup of the Krewe: If you're a powerful white man, you're in.

Everybody else is out.

And segregation, no matter how blatant or subtle, in 1990 still doesn't spoil a good time in the streets.

Kevin E. Washington is bureau chief in the Times' Northdale office in

northwest Hillsborough County.