Pulitzer-Prize Winning Journalist Leonard Pitts Visits Utica
April 27th 2012 · 0 Comments
Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author Leonard Pitts was in town last week and delivered a powerful message to a crowd of more than 500 in the Clark Athletic Center of Utica College. The nationally syndicated columnist was surprised to receive the award of an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Trustee Larry Gilroy and UC President Todd Hutton, who delivered the hood and parchment to this distinguished journalist just prior to the delivery of his April 18th address.
Mr. Pitts’ address, “A Single Garment of Destiny,” challenged the reality of race, the disconnect America has with race and the lack of attention national media ascribes to racial injustice. It is significant to note that very little local media coverage was given this influential American voice. Even the Observer-Dispatch, which runs his bi-weekly column, reduced his message to a foot note.
Yet Pitts’ message was stunning, and deserves serious consideration.
Although Pitts is a best-selling author, and did offer his books for sale and signature after his evening lecture at Utica College, the book that he heralded and vigorously promoted throughout the day, in meetings with students and civic leaders is Michelle Alexander’s work, ‘The New Jim Crow.’
As most are aware, Jim Crow refers to the American racial caste system of segregation and brutality created soon after the Civil War. Jim Crow made it legal to discriminate against Blacks in voting, education, employment, housing, access to public places, in transportation, inclusion in the military, and social advancement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 struck down those laws.
Jim Crow laws more famously included the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for Whites and Blacks. Jim Crow resulted in impoverished Black communities, a continuance of discrimination in all manners of American life, and an acceptance of contempt, brutality and violence towards Black people.
Pitts explained, “We were taught that ‘Black’ was inferior because it justified and helped in the physical, economic, and political exploitation of an entire group of people. If Blacks are inferior and that is encoded into law, then there are millions of people you no longer have to compete with for jobs or housing or economic security or political power.”
Pitts pointed out that Alexander’s important book exposes the reality that today’s legal justice system, or what he called the ‘injustice system,’ reconstructs a racialized social control upon Blacks in American society very similar to that of Jim Crow.
As Pitts cited at his early morning breakfast with journalists, community leaders and activists, the problems we are now facing are traceable to the Nixon era. In a confidential communique to his boss, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman emphasized that, “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key [to correcting this] is to devise a system that recognizes this, while not appearing to.”
Alexander points out that President Reagan’s 1982 Drug War was followed by the rapid spread of crack cocaine in poor Black neighborhoods of LA, and afterwards to the rest of the country. The Reagan administration then launched a national media campaign which saturated images of crack dealers, crack babies and crack whores, all Black.
Pitts explained that in today’s ‘injustice system’ a felony drug conviction accomplishes Nixon’s intention. Convicted felons are prohibited from voting, employment, education, banking (student loans), housing, and other forms of social and economic advancement. Alexander’s book points out the chronology and emergence of the ‘Drug War’ and its eventual impact and devastation upon Black communities.
Stories circulated in Black communities nationwide that this new crack epidemic and other drugs were, in fact, being brought into Black neighborhoods by the CIA.
Alexander exposes that, “In 1998, the CIA admitted that guerilla armies it actively supported in Nicaragua were smuggling illegal drugs into the U.S…. that were making their way onto the streets of inner city neighborhoods as crack cocaine.”
Pitts spoke of the distressing fact that a young Black man is 57% more likely to be jailed than his White counterpart. And that though only 12% of Black men deal drugs, they make up 35% of those arrested, 55% of those convicted and 75% of those sentenced to prison. These high conviction and incarceration rates of Blacks are disproportionately higher than the prosecutorial discretion judges convey upon White men.
The influence of this system Pitts describes as “restrictive, oppressive, and omnipresent.” The author states that today, one-out-of-every-three young Black men can be expected to ‘do some serious time’ for a drug felony conviction. Without intervention, Pitts says, it will soon escalate to be one-out-of- every-two.
“If this were the prediction for young White boys, a state of national emergency would be declared. There would be thinks tanks put into place, commissions established, and untold energy devoted to reversing the situation,” said Pitts.
Sadly, however, America appears to be numbed to the devastating impact of this situation on Blacks in America. Even the mention of ‘the Black problem’ will turn most Whites away from the conversation. In his lecture, Pitts described a further indicator of America’s rejection of Blacks in this way:
“Back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, the nation suffered through a string of tragic school shootings in places like Pearl, MS, Eugene OR, West Paducah, KY and, most notoriously, Littleton, CO. Virtually all of the neighborhoods where these shootings took place were White. Virtually all of the victims were White. Virtually all of the shooters were White.
“Yet, when we mourned those murders and contemplated their causes, no one identified this as a White problem. These were American kids, killed in American schools, and this was an American problem.
“In 2006, a nine-year-old Black girl named Sherdavia Jenkins was playing at the front door of her home in inner city Miami when she was shot in the neck and killed in the crossfire of a shoot out between two gangsters. I wrote a column in which I described urban violence like this as, “an American problem.”
“Dozens of “White” people… wrote to correct me. This was not an American problem, they said. It was a Black problem, and Black people need to fix it.”
Beyond the historical regularity with which American Blacks have been dehumanized and persecuted, there is the process that Pitts refers to as “Weapons of Mass Distractions,” whereby targets such as illegal immigrants, gays, and Muslims are projected to America as the ‘real problem’ rather than, as Pitts pointed out, “predatory lending practices which may cost you your house, than complex and deceptive financial schemes which drove the economy off a cliff, than 45 million Americans without access to healthcare, than schools systems which are turning out children who are not equipped to compete in a global marketplace, than a war on drugs that has cost a trillion dollars, made 40 million arrests and yet seen drug use rise by 2,800% over 40 years, than a military stressed by a decade of wars, one of which never should have been fought in the first place, than the rich getting richer while the poor keep on getting poorer, than a national debt which, as of Monday, stood at exactly: $15,614,994,767,843.32.”
Pitts gave this example of the effectiveness of this campaign of racial division:
“No one speaks about this, but the White under class has also been the victim here, having fallen prey to an ingenious con, which told them something like this: you may have no money, you may have no education, you may have no prospects, but you do have your whiteness, so you are part of the club.”
In ending Pitts challenged the audience to, “seek common cause with those who are not like you, to make yourself impervious to the Weapons of Mass Distraction and demand that those who are around you do the same.”
Pitts concluded by reminding listeners that, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
By Mark Ziobro