New year. Old doubts.

My family was headed to a movie recently when we spied one of my husband's former teachers. Impossibly youthful, Linda Wanner -- now an assistant principal at Montgomery Blair High School -- greeted us warmly. Mentioning a column I'd written about Trent Lott's now-infamous statements at Strom Thurmond's birthday shindig, she said:

"I don't know if racism was in [Lott's] heart, but it was certainly on his lips."

The day was sunny. My family was well. Lott's majority leadership had disappeared quicker than Santa's Christmas cookies.

Yet I found myself sighing, exasperated.

"Why are people so willing to assume that Lott isn't racist?" I asked this lovely white woman who, decades ago, encouraged the writing talent of the black teenager who grew up to become my prizewinning journalist husband.

"To my mind, most people are racist -- or at least have racist thoughts," I continued. "Even if they'll never admit them. In this country, how could they avoid them?"

She paused. "I don't know if I can agree with that," she said slowly, realizing the delicate ground we'd stumbled onto.

Deep in her heart, buried within her words, I realized, were decades of wrestling with this maddening subject. Any thoughtful educator who has for 36 years dealt with kids of every color in an increasingly multicultural landscape had to have grappled with bigotry -- students', fellow instructors', the school system's, perhaps even her own.

If she believed that she and other whites are free of America's deepest bugaboo, I had to respect it. I had to consider it.

I had to doubt it.

I'd done lots of exasperated sighing in the previous weeks as commentator after commentator insisted Lott wasn't bigoted. Some found it "impossible" that Lott truly meant the words that seemingly endorsed Thurmond's explicitly racist 1948 presidential platform. Lott couldn't have believed the nation would have been better off had Thurmond won.

"It's unlikely, after all, that Lott is or ever was a principled racist," wrote Michael Kinsley in a thoughtful, Lott-condemning column. On the Dec. 10 edition of TV's "Crossfire," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) flatly stated, "Trent Lott is not a racist" -- despite Lott having told the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens in 1992 that "the people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy."

What would a racist have said?

Not surprisingly, Lott got the benefit of the doubt. Which would be fine if everybody could get it. Ask my Los Angeles-based brother, who recently was stopped by a policeman merely for taking a shortcut through Beverly Hills.

The white officer "passed me and his 'Negro alert' must have gone off -- he spun around," he recalled. "Then his lights start flashing." After checking inside the car, the officer let him go.

My brother was incensed.

"I don't get the benefit of the doubt. Why should Trent Lott?"

Because everyone wants and deserves it. My point isn't that Lott believes that "the characteristics and abilities of an individual are determined by race and that one race is biologically superior to another," as Webster's describes racism. How can I know his beliefs?

Why should I care?

See, I have trouble believing that white people can do what black people could not. It was always in African Americans' interest to resist white racism -- yet we absorbed bigoted notions about our bodies, intelligence and potential that still plague us. It's only natural that people who grew up in a nation that for generations demonized people of color would have unspoken thoughts reflecting that upbringing. So I don't worry overmuch about what people think.

I focus on what they do.

What they did when Lott uttered his own 45-word political epitaph was to be authentically appalled. Yes, some folks just acted appalled, but the genuine repugnance of many whites surprised and moved me.

If Lott -- or one of my son's teachers or a neighbor -- has the occasional racist thoughts, I can handle it. They've been trained to think them.

What matters is what they do.

If they reject the thought, reminding themselves that such feelings are unworthy of them -- then I'm cool.

So, clearly, is Mrs. Wanner. "Long ago, I confronted the racism in my upbringing, in my mind," she told me yesterday. "And I decided I could never look at anybody in terms of color.

"But unless you get into my heart," she agreed, "you can't truly know that."

By focusing our attention on that "painful, hateful" era, Mrs. Wanner continued, Lott "told every educator, every parent that they have to learn to look into their hearts about racism. One day, they may find themselves in a spot where what's there can make a difference."

"If, after looking, they hurt someone based on race," she said, "it's unforgivable."

That I didn't doubt for a minute.