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Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist speaks at Flagler’s ‘Ideas and Images’ series

Apr 11, 2014
by Tom Iacuzio

Twice a week, millions of newspaper readers around the country seek out the voice of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. In March, he could be found at Flagler College where he spoke at the college’s Ideas and Images: Visiting Scholars and Artists speaker series. This year the program focused on “Race and the American South.”

Pitts spoke to Flagler Magazine before his lecture:

Q. The title of your lecture is “Chains, Roots and Wings.” Can you explain that a bit?

A. It really reflects three important things in connection with African Americans in the South. Chains are obvious, but they don’t just represent the physical chains of slavery, but also the metaphorical chains such as Jim Crow and the discriminations that came after that. As for Roots, the South is where most of us as African Americans came from. Now I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but I would bet most of us as African Americans are probably only a generation or two removed from the South. And Wings, that is a hope for the future that perhaps we can pick out the ugliness of the past and forge something better.

Q. It’s easy to think of the Civil Rights Movement as a thing of the past but how far have we come really?

A. It’s an interesting question. White Americans tend to look at how far we have traveled. African Americans tend to look at how much further we have to go. The thing is, both those things are true. It’s like if your mission was to drive from California to New York and you get to St. Louis. You can say well, we’ve come a very long way. You have. But the idea of being satisfied with that would be silly because you still have a long way to go.

Q. You always hear comments like “I don’t see color.” Do you think that style of political correctness hurts dealing with race effectively?

A. I love that one. People think they are so enlightened and they are well intentioned, but they are missing the point. If I have to make a show of not seeing an aspect of your identity, what I’m saying is that aspect of your identity is troublesome to me or is problematic in some way. I’m 6’1” and brown. If you don’t see me as a black man, it doesn’t say you’re color blind. It says you’re blind. The question isn’t,
“Do you see me as black?” The question is, “Once you see me as black, what does that mean to you?”

Q. Does that false enlightenment get in the way of having a real conversation about racial issues?

A. It does. Talking about race in this country has become harder and harder for a number of reasons. One of the reasons is when you talk about our history, there is a tendency for African Americans to get angry or to feel humiliation and there’s a tendency for white people to feel guilty or feel like you’re trying to make them feel guilty. Neither of those are very productive. I think another problem is too many African Americans are playing this game of gotcha. If a white person says something that maybe is a little questionable but not meant as racist, they’re more interested in roasting you on a spit than correcting the issue and moving on to the larger point. But also, we go back to the “Oh, we’ve come such a long way” sentiment. We have a problem where many people tend to think that’s enough. Obama is president. Oprah is queen. We don’t have to talk about this anymore. In the meantime we have things like record numbers of incarcerated African Americans and employment discrimination.

Q. The Civil Rights fight is growing much larger than just in the African American community. What is your take on the similarities between that battle and the fight for gay rights?

A. The arguments that are being made now for laws like the one that Arizona just tried to pass are identical, not similar, to the arguments that were made to the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s. If you’re African American and have any sense of your history, you’re saying, “Hey, wait a minute” and making common cause with the gays. I’m kind of frustrated with the lack of vigilance on the part of African Americans and others who believe in social justice. Progress is being stolen right out from under our noses and we aren’t paying attention.

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