Leonard Pitts: “We Do a Bad Job Talking About Race in America”

“How are you all enjoying post-racial America?”

So stung Leonard Pitts’ opening zinger at his lecture on campus last night. The Pulitzer Prize-winning progressive columnist wowed a full house at the Texas Union with his characteristic blend of incisive political commentary and wry humor. America, Pitts argued, is not post-racial and won’t be any time soon.

It’s ridiculous, Pitts suggested, that just two years ago pundits were saying that Obama’s election could portend a nation that looks beyond race. “Obama has faced a level of racial invective so coarse and so crude, and emanating not from isolated crazies but from the news media and the public establishment, that it makes you search the history books for precedent,” he said.

Pitts rattled off a laundry list of racial insults to the President from prominent figures who’ve called him “uppity,” a “tar baby,” “boy,” and a participant in a “terrorist fist jab,” among other attacks, such as a political cartoon in the New York Post depicting him as a monkey.

“It’s astonishing how surprised Obama always seems at the opposition against him. Not against his policies, his ideas, or his legislation. Against him,” Pitts said. He guessed that perhaps Obama’s reluctance to recognize racial opposition stems from the fact that he was raised by a white mother and grew up in diverse and laid-back Hawaii, and thus sheltered from experiencing racism in his youth. “Most black folk will tell you it’s the water in which we swim,” Pitts said, referring to racial discrimination.

He chided the media, and Americans in general, for failing to talk openly about race and put racial incidents in a historical context:”We do a bad job talking about race in America.”

“We have got to go beyond the outrage du jour,” he said. “The news media grabs the superficial, the sensational, the immediate. We may say how terrible it was that a cartoon depicted Obama as an ape, but what nobody’s talking about is that it used to be very, very common to depict black people as apes … Everybody’s talking about your governor’s colorfully named ranch, but nobody’s talking about why it still has that name … It would behoove us all to read some books and do what many of us do not when it comes to race: think.”

“Change doesn’t come from a lightning bolt,” Pitts concluded. “Change comes from us.”

Photo by Jeff Heimsath


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