Thursday, June 28, 2007

Living in an African-American neighborhood has turned a white woman into a racist

Rodney Thrash:

As she wrote, she realized that the journey from tolerance to prejudice began two years ago when she moved to St. Petersburg's Bartlett Park. Her Realtor, her parents, even her black friends told her that moving there was a mistake.

She didn't listen. One of her white friends lived nearby and had no problems. She figured her experience would be no different. She took all the precautions Realtors suggest. She researched the neighborhood. Most of the crimes there were minor. She drove through at night and never saw any strange activity.

It was affordable; she could pay the mortgage with her income as a freelance writer. After multiple visits to the 1925 bungalow, she paid $72, 500. She closed June 10, 2005.

The first six months, things were good.

Early on, she befriended Gail Fisher-Lee, a black woman across the street. Fisher-Lee invited Salustri over for New Orleans-style crawfish dinners. On their off days, they'd sit on the porch and talk.

"I'm going to be fine here, " Salustri said.

The thefts started in December 2005. First a ladder. Then, a folding chair, a weed whacker, a Volkswagen carburetor. This past April, a scooter. When a suspect - who is black - was found with the scooter, something in Salustri switched.

Stereotypes ricocheted through her head.

He'll be dead before he's 30.

The slur she won't say out loud blared in her brain.

Salustri found out his name and went to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Web site to view his booking report. There was his mug shot - he was 19 and black - and his address, a few blocks away.

Last month, she went to court, where the scooter suspect appeared on drug charges. She needed to see his face, she said. "If I saw him on the street, I wanted to know the guy who stole my scooter." In court, he smiled and waved at the people sitting on the right side of the gallery. Most of them were black.

That's when Salustri lost it.

It was bigger than the suspect. She was disgusted with every black person in the courtroom. She didn't know their stories and didn't care.

F- - - - - - lowlifes.

In early 2007, Ken Reichart, publisher of the 13, 000-circulation Gulfport Gabber, was brainstorming ways to beef up the paper's coverage of Midtown. He assigned Salustri to the beat.

A couple of sluggish months passed, and Salustri confessed to Reichart that she was biased. Two years in Bartlett Park, she said, had turned her into someone she didn't recognize. As long as she revealed those biases, Reichart told her, he didn't object to her covering the area.

Her first assignment was a three-part series on crime. The last story was a shorter version of the rant she had typed out that night in her living room and posted on her personal blog. Reichart never considered not running it.

"Everything written about this area is about the good things that are happening, " he said. "She wanted to give her viewpoint."

Salustri figured if nothing else, it would start a dialogue.

"There's this gray area no one wants to talk about, " Salustri said. "Maybe I'm not this white-sheet-wearing, cross-burning skinhead, but I clearly do have some issues that need to be addressed."

She told only her parents what was coming.

"Are you crazy?" her mother asked. "Aren't you afraid that when somebody reads it there will be retaliation?"

The story ran on the front page on May 10 under the headline, "I Had A Dream."


Most of the reaction to the story has been less hostile than she expected.

The Gabber received fewer than a dozen letters, evenly split in their opinion, but nothing dripping with hate. Salustri even spoke to a local meeting of black journalists. But she hasn't changed her mind about her neighborhood.

A red and white "FOR SALE" sign sits in her front yard.

She put her house on the market after the scooter was stolen. So far, there are no takers, and her Realtor recommended she drop the asking price to $99, 000.

If that's what she has to do, so be it.

"I don't want to live somewhere where everything gets stolen, " Salustri said. "I don't want to work that hard to feel safe."

A White Liberal’s Lament: My Neighbors Made Me a Racist

A liberal’s agony


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