June 20, 1995|By JIM SOLLISCH

Cleveland -- Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that one day all people would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their hearts.

His dream was co-opted first by well-meaning liberals who took it to mean we should strive to create a color-blind society where we take no more notice of skin color than we do of eye color. And now by not-so-well meaning conservatives who are using the notion of color-blindness to dismantle affirmative-action programs.

The problem with being a great orator like is that you speak in pictures and symbols. Poetic rhetoric is not social policy. The problem with being a martyr is you're not around to say, ''Hey, wait a minute, what I really meant was . . .''

The notion of color-blindness is ridiculous. I know the race of the person I'm talking to. And so do you. I also see the person's sex, age and physical beauty or lack of it. Our vision is not monitored by a computer we can set to filter out certain qualities. Once we realize that color-blindness is an abstract ideal, as impossible to attain as perfect government, we are free to actually open our eyes and look around. That's exactly what my family has recently done. This is our affirmative-action story.

Several years ago when my wife Marianne and I were looking for a place to live and raise our kids, we picked Cleveland Heights, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland, known nationally for its successful diversity. It's the kind of community Martin Luther King dreamed of. little black kids join hands with little white kids on the playgrounds of schools that are 65 percent African-American, in neighborhoods where blacks and whites live on the same streets, in a city whose leaders, school board members, teachers and administrators are a solid mix of black and white. If ever a community had achieved color-blindness, it's Cleveland Heights.

In fact, that's what the parents -- both African-American and white -- say when their kids play with only same-race children, as is often the case: ''Hey, I send my kid to a racially diverse school. It doesn't matter what color his friends are.'' That's what my wife and I said when our son, Zack, brought home only white kids for the first six months of first grade.

Then we decided it did matter. We decided that color-blind was simply blind. Zack's grade had approximately 50 boys, 35 of whom were African-American. If he was only picking his friends from a pool of 15 kids, then he was robbing himself of potential friendships. To live in an integrated community and have only friends that look like us is like living next to an art museum and never stepping inside.

So we told Zack that the next kid he brought home from school had better be African-American. We didn't set a quota of white friends to black, but we did mandate diversity in his friendships. We taught him to practice affirmative action, not to benefit his African-American classmates but to benefit himself. And it worked. His friends are now a much more diverse group, both inside and outside of school. And Zack is a more well-rounded, interesting kid. He has spent Christmas with African-American friends and celebrated Kwanzaa. He's eaten fried chitlins, which he loved until he found what they were. And he's gone to black churches where he's been the only white person.

Now that we'd wiped the fog of color-blindness from our eyes, it didn't take long to see that we didn't have many African-American friends either. Lots of acquaintances and colleagues, but the people at our parties all looked pretty much like us, the couples we went out with on Saturday nights were all white, and so were the families we got together with for cookouts and holidays.

So we decided to practice what we'd preached. Marianne and I made a conscious effort to make friends with the parents of our kid's classmates. Of course, not everyone wanted to be our friend or we theirs, but several have become an integral part of our lives.

And now, a couple of years later, on any given Saturday night, the couple we choose to go out with is just as likely to be African-American as not. The families we get together with are much more diverse. And so are our lives.

We now know a network of professionals we never had access to before. A network of parents we can get together with to solve problems in our schools. We know the difference between collard greens and mustard greens. We know enough about African-American history to know it's not just a month and it's not just for African-Americans. And we also know that African-Americans are as diverse a group as whites, made up of conservatives and liberals, of dancers and wallflowers, of athletes and klutzes, of snobs and regular folks.

By forgetting about color-blindness, we have learned to join hands with different kinds of people and so have our children. It has like stepping into an art museum after a lifetime of staring at only Norman Rockwell paintings.

Jim Sollisch is a free-lance writer.

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