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Originally published March 7, 2013 at 4:00 PM | Page modified March 8, 2013 at 12:17 PM

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Why it’s a good idea for Seattle’s students to talk about racial preferences

The Seattle Public Schools should not fear a class that explores white privilege. America was built on a system of racial preferences. Surely this progressive city can talk about that.

Times editorial columnist

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A Seattle Public Schools class explores sexism and white privilege. The latter topic is so politically loaded district officials recently convened a committee to examine the course content.

The district’s action puzzles me. America was built on a system of racial exclusions thriving well into the 20th century. Facts are facts. Surely we can all talk about that.

Yes, the term “white privilege” is a provocative description of the “Citizenship and Social Justice” class at the Center School. But the shorthand rings true.

How it is discussed is critical. No need to make people who came of age long after segregation feel guilty about the second-class citizenship once conferred upon African Americans.

Guilt is pointless. Understanding the ways history continues to cast a long shadow on today is the better goal.

A contemporary example is in the Seattle Public Schools, where African-American students are suspended and expelled at three to four times the rate of nonblack students. A federal investigation is under way.

Disparities in the district’s disciplinary rates are neither surprising nor new. A Times story written in 2001 started out this way:

“Acknowledging that students of different races sometimes are disciplined differently for the same offenses, Seattle public-school officials are calling for sharper definitions of ‘disobedience,’ ‘disruptive conduct’ and ‘rule-breaking.’ ”

Some things don’t change. Nor is it only Seattle struggling with uneven treatment and opportunities for kids of color. The feds are simply looking our way.

Around a year ago this time, I wrote about the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin and how it fueled talks with my son about racial biases. The U.S. Department of Education’s statistics showing that black students nationwide are disciplined at higher rates and with harsher penalties has spurred another conversation with my child about the need to be beyond reproach at school.

My son is both his own person and a member of an ethnic group that is often judged by its pathologies rather than by the traits of its individuals.

When comedian Bill Cosby advises African Americans to work hard, build stable families and strive for success, he’s reinforcing work in progress. But the public perception is that Cosby’s remarks are a futile attempt to keep a race of 30 million people from self-destructing.

And so my husband and I give our son a talk that is a blend of Cosby and the Seattle white-privilege course.

We tell him that the art of school discipline is subjective.

Discrimination has been outlawed, but old biases may remain. Some people will judge him based on skin color, his manner of dress or the timbre and emotion in his voice.

We tell our son not only does he not want to make trouble, he doesn’t want to be near it lest he get mistaken for the instigator.

We tell him that respect is in the eye of the beholder. He may think he’s being respectful by avoiding looking teachers directly in the eye or speaking frankly of classroom dilemmas, but a teacher may see and hear insolence.

As my son grows taller and more masculine, I’m reminded of how teaching remains an overwhelmingly white, female profession. And so we tell him never, ever, ever do anything that could appear remotely threatening.

Sure, some adults need to question their perceptions. But it won’t happen in time to save him from detention or suspension.

Yes, it is a social tightrope that he must walk, one many adults have trouble navigating.

But we tell our son we believe in his ability to do it successfully.

And those statistics showing the high rate of black students getting kicked out of school? Our efforts are to ensure he doesn’t become another statistic.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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