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Originally published July 4, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 8, 2007 at 11:00 AM


Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Mistaken for a black thing, few strive to understand it

At the risk of dating myself, I remember when the latest activist-wear featured white T-shirts adorned with the stark message: "It's a Black...

At the risk of dating myself, I remember when the latest activist-wear featured white T-shirts adorned with the stark message: "It's a Black Thing, You Wouldn't Understand."

What stood out then was how uncomfortable the shirts made people of other races. Some sniffed that the message was silly and self-limited the wearer. Others wondered, if there were things whites would never understand about African Americans, wasn't the reverse also true?

They would have found a message from an earlier period of protest-wear far more palatable. In the 1960s, everyone I knew sported a T-shirt that proclaimed the wearer "Black and Proud." The message resonated beyond the black community, coming as it did in an era when America was sprinting away from its racist past.

There are as many ways to view a symbol as there are viewers. For some, "It's a Black Thing" challenged their sense of entitlement. How dare anything exist outside of their ability to understand. Others, picking up on the phrase's sense of irony, agreed that there were some things outsiders would never understand.

Beware, my grandmother would often warn, of things that can turn around and bite you in the rear. So it is that among the things considered to be "black things" are neglected schools and police-brutality victims.

I see this in Seattle's hand-wringing over the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of school-integration efforts. The court's 5-4 ruling against diversity plans in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle will effectively quell similar efforts in the thousands of public-school systems around the country.

A different court in 1954 affirmed the need for diverse schools in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. This court is parting ways with that standard.

People are worried and for good reason. But fear and efforts narrowly targeting minority — chiefly black — students aren't helpful. The struggle for good teachers and well-resourced schools isn't one undertaken by and for African-American students.

The court's disregard of the way school quality and good choices fall along racial and socioeconomic patterns challenges urban districts such as Seattle to address the disparities without breaking the law.

Seattle gave up its racial tiebreaker, but not its will to assure all students, white, black, Latino, Asian and Native American, a good education. Given the growing segregation of neighborhoods by income and race, this will be no easy feat. Success is made easier by an understanding that the struggle isn't just for black students south of the Ship Canal, but the families of all hues who find life in the South End wonderful except for its paucity of good schools.

School quality isn't a black thing, it's a citywide thing.

That lesson transfers to the Seattle Police Department as well. Despite issues of police-officer credibility and misconduct in the past, public outrage over the latest allegations, chiefly the brutal beating of an African-American man on Capitol Hill, has been muted.

The Office of Professional Accountability recommended discipline for the officers involved in the violent arrest. Investigators found the officers withheld from defense attorneys dashboard-camera videotape that would have revealed the extent of the officers' misconduct. In the end, the officers paid little for their actions. I'm not sure if Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske made the correct call or if he is so cowed by the police union that he preferred to face a bloodied black man rather than union ire.

None of us knows; but we're entitled to find out.

Kerlikowske must offer a strong and public explanation for why he opted not to have heads on the force roll in the wake of the beating. If the chief can't do that, he should offer his own head.

This isn't a black thing. We all woke up to a picture on the front page of our city's newspaper depicting a human being bruised and battered by a couple of our finest. It ought to strike a sour note in all of us, not just those of us who share the same skin tone as the victim.

Among the ironies of our great nation is today's designation as a holiday to celebrate America's freedom. Many of us will gather tonight underneath a darkened sky, waiting for it to explode with fireworks.

The most patriotic in our midst will give a thought to the Declaration of Independence's central words, "All men are created equal." The most erudite might even recall that the concept of freedom was reaffirmed with the ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Ah, freedom. The right to an education and the right to be treated with respect by authorities. These aren't black needs. They are human needs. This is something we all need to understand.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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