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