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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
How did tolerance and acceptance turn into judgment, and then something uglier?
By RODNEY THRASH
Published June 21, 2007
Cathy Salustri, who lives with her dog, Madison, didn't talk to her friend and neighbor about race until her article was published. She didn't know what kind of reaction the story would provoke. "There's this gray area no one wants to talk about," she says.
Cathy Salustri lives in St. Petersburg's Bartlett Park, a predominantly black neighborhood. The only white woman on her block, she moved here two years ago, against her real estate agent's advice. Now she's ready to sell and move to a safer neighborhood.
ST. PETERSBURG - Cathy Salustri was typing without thinking. She was mad and she needed to get the words out. What spilled across her computer screen would eventually land on the front page of a Gulfport newspaper and spark Internet debate around the bay area. But that night in her living room, doubt filled her mind. Why did I write something stupid like that? Do I feel this way? I can't possibly feel this way. The words on the screen did not lie:
I'm a white woman living in a black neighborhood, and I'm turning into a racist because of it.
She won't use racial epithets. She doesn't go around waving Confederate flags. She had to look up the word "racism" to see if it applied to her:
The belief that race accounts for differences in human ability or character.
She decided it probably does.
Salustri, 34, isn't proud of who she has become. It's not a reflection of her upbringing, the first seven years in New York, the rest in Clearwater.
"She really didn't have an idea of black and white, " said her mother, Ann Salustri. "It was never brought up." All she knew was that she was Italian. If she saw someone lighter than herself, she thought the person was pale, not white. She was 9 before she discovered that her dad's best friend was black.
When she was in third grade at Belleair Elementary in Clearwater, some of Salustri's white classmates started bad-mouthing the black ones.
She can't quote them verbatim, she said, but the gist of the conversation remains clear:
"Black people are bad."
After school let out that afternoon, she asked her mom what "black" meant.
"People have dark skin, " Ann Salustri began. "Like Leroy, daddy's friend."
She looked at her mother and asked:
"Does Leroy know that he's black?"
- - -
How can someone so seemingly oblivious to color now view everything through the lens of race?
That night at the computer, she kept typing:
I don't say this proudly; quite the opposite, in fact: I am ashamed of myself. But it doesn't seem to matter.
She figured that if she kept writing, she could understand the origin of that first sentence.
"You don't solve anything, " Salustri said, "if you don't address the things about you that aren't wonderful."
For Salustri, writing has always been there, a sort of companion. "Some people talk to their friends, " she said. "I have always used writing as kind of a way to distill the root of whatever is making me unhappy."
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."
- - -
Fisher-Lee, Salustri's neighbor, hadn't read the story until a St. Petersburg Times reporter brought it to her attention.
She sat on her sofa, eyes widening with each paragraph.
"My Lord, " she said.
"Oh my goodness."
Fisher-Lee couldn't get past the second page.
"I'm just surprised by what I'm reading, " she said. "It's almost like lifting the veil on the way she sees things. Maybe I haven't listened to her enough. Maybe I haven't encouraged her enough to not feel that way."
When Fisher-Lee moved to Bartlett Park, Salustri was the first person she met. They both loved dogs, and Salustri owns a Dalmatian named Madison. "She and I became fast friends, " she said.
Fisher-Lee doesn't think Salustri is a racist. Just melodramatic. The things that have happened to Salustri have happened to her, too, she said.
But "I don't feel slighted, " she said. "There are things that go on in every neighborhood."
Salustri's mother isn't convinced her daughter is a racist, either. "A racist doesn't apologize for the way they feel, " she said.
Twenty minutes after seeing the article, Fisher-Lee knocked on Salustri's door. She wasn't angry.
"Anytime she wants to come over here, " Fisher-Lee said, "she's welcome and she knows that.
But after all the dinners they'd shared together, all the conversations outside on the porch, she had one question: "Why didn't you tell me you felt that way?"
- - -
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 few weeks ago, Salustri told a friend about the article she'd written. Her friend is black, and Salustri told her that if all this had happened before they met, the new Salustri might not have given their relationship a try.
"I don't like feeling this way, " she told the woman.
"It's very simple, " the friend said. "Don't."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at (727) 893-8352 or firstname.lastname@example.org.