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Too subtle to label, too destructive to ignore

I stopped writing about racism several years ago.

It does no good. It's a waste of time.

Those people I used to call racists would never own up to it. Other people I used to tell about racist acts refused to believe they happened.

Racism is dead, they would say.

So, out of respect for the dead, I stopped writing about racism.

This may come as a shock to many readers of this newspaper, especially those who accuse me of writing too often about race.

Yes, I still write about the effects race consciousness has on our lives. I still write about decisions where race was a key factor.

But I don't write about racism anymore.

So it was with some consternation that I awoke one recent morning to find a headline about racism on top of my column.

Part of my dismay came from the realization that many readers often never make it past the headline, the only part of the column I didn't write.

Many readers, I've learned over the years, don't know that writers rarely choose the headlines for their work. That's done by editors who have a knack for capturing in five or six words ideas that take me 80 lines to express.

They usually do an excellent job, and this one was no exception. In the old days, back when I was still writing about racism, it might have been perfect.

But I don't write about racism anymore, and the word in the headline bothered me.

The word itself is so ambiguous, its meaning so generic, that using it serves more to obscure an idea than to make it clear.

Is racism a bunch of skinheads randomly attacking anyone they suspect of having a different heritage than theirs? Or is it Mr. and Mrs. America choosing to live in the whitest part of town they can afford, and hoping _ but never saying it publicly _ that their neighbors will always be white?

Is racism a joke told by an acquaintance that depends on assumptions about a race for its punchline? Is it racism when you have nothing against people of a different race, you just really don't feel comfortable around them?

The answer to all is yes. Each scenario would fit into the grab bag of attitudes and actions that could accurately be called racist. The bag is large, filled with the diverse range of acts and mindsets that holds race as a prominent motivator. Each has has the potential to severely alter many lives.

In a country that acknowledges race as the major issue confronting its citizens, race's role in their interactions can't be ignored.

It just can't be called racism.

Racism is a dirty word, rendered useless because it lumps reasonable, intelligent, well-groomed people whose prejudices are so subtle they have trouble recognizing them, with violent, raving idiots who wear sheets and salute Hitler.

That is why I stopped writing about racism. A racist whose only offense is that he sees good qualities more easily in someone who is white is immediately alienated when he is called the same thing as the sheriffs who brutalized black people for sport.

His actions, though much more passive, yield the larger scale devastation in the America of today where economic progress is the newest focus. None of us who are interested in seeing this country confront and resolve its complex racial differences can allow the import of such subtle actions go unnoticed.

That demands that we stop talking about the evils of an ill-defined racism and start talking about the little chinks in our racial armor that make us, despite our high opinions of ourselves, the race problem of the '90s.

Then perhaps we will stop trying kill affirmative action by telling ourselves that we've killed the need for it. Remember: We didn't need affirmative action because barbarians lynched people. Affirmative action was needed because well-heeled people wouldn't hire them.