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Tuesday, December 7, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Conquer your fear and face America's complex palette

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Does everything have to be about race, someone once wrote to me.

And a friend once gave me what he thought was good career advice: Don't write about race relations so much, or readers will grow tired of you.

Mostly, I've ignored the counsel, but it is true that nothing makes the eyes glaze over, the ears close and the attention span dissipate like a dialogue on race. Why? Fear. We fear sounding like a racist. We fear being thought a racist. We get angry at our fear. And then we grow tired of it.

Like the emotional fatigue that comes from seeing too many pictures of starving children with bloated bellies and flies in their eyes, we tune out. Once we know the story, whether it's starvation, genocide or war, we stop listening.

To explore this issue further, I traveled last week to St. Petersburg, perhaps best known for housing the largest collection of Salvador Dali paintings but better known in the journalistic world as the home of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. I was joined by a couple of dozen of the best minds in broadcast and print, all of us motivated to learn better how to cover the diversity and complexity of America.

Some will undoubtedly question why journalists think about race at all, much less write about it. The best answer came from folks at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a co-host of the three-day seminar.

The Baltimore-based foundation is spending a chunk of its considerable resources on exploring racial inequities, for example launching partnerships in distressed communities nationwide — including White Center — to help neighborhoods battle systems that work against them.

Don't tune out yet. This isn't a hunt for racist deeds or leaders. It is a smart approach to addressing systems that may appear benign but can drastically impact one racial or ethnic group.

Casey's choice of White Center is dead-on. This small, vibrant community south of Seattle is a perfect example of the ways nonracial intentions have drastic effects that fall along racial lines.

The area cries out for stable commercial investment, yet there is little save check-cashing outlets and money lenders. White Center is comprised largely of people of color who are moderate- to low-income. In another community, say mine on the Eastside, commercial outlets flourish and real estate is king. My neighborhood is largely white and upper-income.

In White Center, the system works against the people, making them pay more for things such as property taxes and durable goods. In my community, the system works quite the opposite.

No one in a white sheet is making good decisions in one place and tough ones in another. Yet, race is the fault line for the systems fueling both communities.

We wonder why some neighborhoods are unstable and broken and others strong and sure. The Casey Foundation's research shows that children do better when their families are strong, and families do better when they live in communities that help them to succeed.

I write about race because innocent intentions can have racial impacts. We don't mean to be cruel. But part of being privileged is acting unintentionally. If we keep our blinders on, we don't have to see the racial effect of our decisions.

Take the federal sentencing guidelines revamped under President Ronald Reagan — with strong bipartisan support — to tackle the scourge of drugs destroying communities, particularly those inhabited by minorities. Harsher punishments are now handed to people trafficking in crack cocaine than to those using or selling other drugs. The intent was to battle drugs. The effect is more black men are in prison than in college.

Or take our educational system, in which inequities mean parents fight to get their children into the best schools. The intent is to do the best we can for our children. The effect has been the segregation of mostly minority and low-income children into schools the rest of us use money and lawyers to avoid.

When it comes to race, we keep looking for the bad guys. Wrong tactic. We are neither saints nor sinners, but people navigating complex systems with good results for some and dire ones for others.

So Varner, back to the question at hand. Does everything have to be about race? It doesn't have to be. But the reality is, it usually is. We once enacted laws governing everything from housing to employment to what constituted marriage, all based on a person's race. Alabama still has such laws and can't seem to get rid of them.

Our society has moved leagues from those days, but the dust from the muck still lingers in the corners. So every time a decision is made — even in our supposed color-blind world — it will still affect us in various ways, depending in part on our race.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com. Look for more of her thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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