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Author-Columnist Leonard Pitts Discusses Politics and Civil Rights

posted on February 12, 2008 at 9:56 AM

February is designated as Black History Month. Many would suggest this month marks a new chapter in American black history, as presidential candidate Barack Obama claimed victories over the weekend in Washington, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Maine. The apparent momentum of the candidate is unprecedented, as was the performance of his Democratic rival. While Obama carried the four states that held contests over the weekend, Senator Clinton gained delegates as well.     

Last month at the observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday, the keynote address was delivered by Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. His message centered on both the profound progress African-Americans have made in society, as well disturbing regressions.

Following the speech he sat down with “The Iowa Journal.” The conversation began with the Obama victory in Iowa and the subsequent friction between the Clinton and Obama campaigns prior to the January South Carolina primary.  

Pitts: We're the kind of country where a Barack Obama has a legitimate chance of becoming president of the United States. We're also the kind of country where a Barack Obama needs extra and early Secret Service protection, you know, because of threats to his life. So we're sort of conflicted a lot in that we're lost on the road to the Promised Land.

We're getting there. We've made progress. We're not where we were in 1968. We're in many ways a lot further than you could have ever conceived. But I think there was a tendency to believe that we have come further than we have and we have finished the work, and that to me is demonstrably untrue -- not just because of Barack Obama needing extra protection, but because of all of these inequities that you see that are codified in various university and government studies that show that there's still a lot to be done here.

Beck: What about the tenor of the race itself between Senator Obama and Senator Clinton? That’s taken a turn over the last week or so, and it’s gotten some attention. Do you think that it's positive, negative?

Pitts: I was disappointed mainly in her for the tenor of the last couple of weeks. It was nasty. And I understand politics can get nasty, but this, in terms of the racial element of it, was just really to me not worthy of her or him specifically.

You know, I guess this whole thing started when she appeared to give Lyndon Johnson credit for the civil rights movement. I know what she meant to say. What she said was a little bit different than what she meant to say, and it was offensive to those of us who read the history and know the history of the civil rights movement and know that while Lyndon Johnson was critical to its success, Martin Luther King was the indispensable man. If you had to remove any one person from that movement and say that without that person it would not have succeeded, King was that individual. So, you know, it was uncharacteristically tin eared for her to say what she said.

And then what really offended me was Bob Johnson following up as her surrogate, BET founder, the guy who gave us the gangster rap videos all over the place suddenly speaking as a concerned African-American to what Barack Obama did as a youth in his admitted drug use, and then when he's called on it, coming back and saying that he was saying something entirely different.

Not just did he insult Barack Obama, he insulted my intelligence also. And so, you know, it was a really bad week, you know, as far as those things are concerned, and I'm glad to see them both, I hope, move on from that.

Beck: You've been writing a series of columns of late, What Works, and asking for people to write to you and suggest things that work to help African-American youth and the next generation move forward. What are some of the ideas you've received, or why did you do that to begin with, why that series of columns?

Pitts: Well, I did that series of columns out of frustration that we in the news media are often spotlighting these isolated successes here and there. You know, this guy has a mentoring program in this town and this person has a school in this other town and they're doing wonderful work. And what I always thought after reading or seeing those stories is if we know how to do it so that it works in this area, in this city, and in this part of this town, why is that the exception and not the rule? Why are we not just doing this on a national level?

So out of that frustration and out of a sense, frankly, that if you are given the podium and the megaphone that you're given when you're a nationally syndicated columnist, I decided to write about things that are things from which we can all take some example, things from which we can all take some lesson and perhaps change the dynamic for a lot of these kids.

And what happens, what turns out from reading or from going to these places or looking at these programs is that it's not brain surgery. it's not a magic potion or something that people who are achieving success are using. It's just investment in the kids, investment not just in money but also of heart and emotion.

It is smaller class sizes. It is longer school days, longer school years. It is teachers and principals who are more empowered to go off the grid and do things that they have found work as opposed to things that are found in some manual or some regulation, et cetera, et cetera.

It's all of these things that are producing these stellar results. And, you know, the next step of that to me is, okay, if they've got the success in Harlem, if they've got the success in Baltimore and in Austin, Texas, why is this not being done elsewhere? Why isn't it being done in Des Moines? Why isn't it being done in Dubuque or Detroit or wherever?

Beck: Especially since those are larger cities, where sometimes it seems like the larger the city, you would think the problem is harder to tackle. So why can't we do it in smaller communities in the Midwest?

Pitt: You see amazing stuff. You know, St. Francis Academy in Baltimore, which I learned about.  This school, it's literally in the shadow across the street from a prison. And you’ve got 90 percent or 100 percent, whatever it is, of their kids – what is the stat, I think 70 percent of their kids are on free or reduced lunch program, 90 percent go to college. You know, that's an amazing --

Beck: That’s not two statistics that usually go together.

Pitts: Yeah, that's an amazing statistic. So why can't we make a laboratory out of that school, figure out what it is they're doing, and then find a way to replicate that on mass scale, so that it's being done as a general rule as opposed to as an exception? If you're a kid who is in dire straits but you're lucky enough to go to this school, you've got a shot; but if you're a kid who is in dire straits and you’re unlucky enough to go to just some average public school, then your life is pretty much set for you as a failure. That is not fair. That's not right.

Beck: You've written about KIP schools, Knowledge is Power programs. Yet it does seem in Iowa there has been some movement toward acceptance of charter schools, but there seems to be a fear among established education of charter schools.

Pitts: I've encountered a little bit of that particularly after I wrote the KIP piece. I can't speak to what their specific concerns are, but I know that one of the things that you see out of the KIP schools and a lot of these schools that are having success is that there is more power concentrated in the principal. The principal has more hiring and firing power over teachers, and I think teachers have a fear of that.

But I don't know that that's such a bad thing in any field. If I don't do my job, if I'm not performing as a newspaper columnist, my bosses have the right to fire me, and that's a motivating thing. That makes me want to get up every morning and earn my keep. I don't know that it is necessarily a good thing to have such job protection that you cannot be fired or it's difficult to fire you when you are indifferent or when you're doing a poor job.

I’ve spoken to a number of principals in doing these interviews, and one of the things that they always cite is, those who are having success with the various schools: I have the power to decide, one, to decide who gets hired, because in public schools a lot of the times they don't have a role in that, and to decide who stays. People who are producing for me, who are giving the test scores, who are connecting with the kids, those are the ones I keep. But the ones who are not getting the job done, those are the ones I let go.

That doesn't seem so revolutionary to me. What about that is un-American or whatever? It doesn't seem like a revolutionary idea to me.

Beck: Iowa is having a discussion right now about whether to expand its correction system, add onto a couple of prisons, build a new super max security prison. In your What Works columns, have you heard from people about the continued disparity between minorities, a small percentage in our population but a large percentage in our correction system and, if so, what to do about it?

Pitts: I haven't talked to people so much in the What Works columns about that. The one thing that does come to mind is Jeffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone, who I interviewed. He was the first of the What Works examples, talked about the fact that people are upset with him. I'm drawing these figures out of my head because I can't remember the exact numbers he used, but people get upset when he wants to spend $3000 to save Johnny, but they don't mind ten years down the line when Johnny is 18 spending $6000 a year to incarcerate Johnny.

And I think that there is something to be said for that. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. If we know what works and if it's cost effective to catch these kids when they are seven, eight, six years old and steer them on the right path, why would we choose not to do that and wait eight or ten years and they kill somebody or they rob somebody or they hurt somebody or they destroy property or something and then spend more money to keep them behind bars? That just seems to me like a loss all the way around.

In terms of the justice system, overall I think you see pretty much that same sort of mindset. We don't mind spending the money to punish -- It's not even about rehabilitation anymore -- to punish and to keep them off the streets, et cetera, et cetera. But we don't seem to want to make any kind of investment in keeping kids away from that in the first place.

Logically -- forget emotion, forget hearts and flowers, forget bleeding hearts, -- just as a dollars and cents matter, that makes no sense to me. If I have a proven way, a demonstrative way of keeping these kids from ever having to go into prison where it's going to cost more to keep them, why would that not be something that we'd all be interested in?

Beck: Another issue that's come up for our state is there is a group of Christian conservatives who would like the state to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage. And over the summer an interesting turn of events we saw was that they banded together with some prominent African-American pastors in the community on this issue, and yet there are others that say, you know, that the gay and lesbian advocates are following the protocol or the pattern of the civil rights movement in attempt to gain more rights. So there's sort of an interesting dynamic there.

Pitts: Yeah, I know a lot of black folks really get upset when you say that the gay and lesbian movement is following the path of the civil rights movement, but obviously it is. Obviously it is. The caveat that I make -- I made this in a speech before a gay group a few months ago. Obviously, gay people were not kidnapped from gay land and brought here. We're talking about different experiences.

But in terms of using social pressure and nonviolent resistance, they are following as the feminist movement followed, as the solidarity movement in Poland followed, they are following the example set by the civil rights movement.

I think it's appalling that African-American pastors would side with the people who thirty, forty years ago did not want them in the pews of their churches, would side with those people who deny rights to somebody else. I think that is appalling. I think it's historically ignorant. I think it shows historical amnesia. It's a troubling development to me, but it also indicates the fact that this capacity for ignorance and intolerance, it's not white, it's not Indian, it's not Pakistani, it's human, you know. It's human, and we really need to attempt to attack it as such.

For me the fight for human rights, black versus white in this country is a fight for human rights. Gay versus straight is the fight for human rights. You know, Jew versus Gentile. It's all to me part of peace. It's all to me part of the same thing. We all live in our different little aspects of it, but what happens to a lot of us is we're not about human rights, we're about self-interest.

So if I've got myself as a black man or as a Jew or whatever to a state where I could feel reasonably comfortable, then I seem to have no compunction about turning around and doing to somebody else what was done to me. People never make that connection. It frustrates the heck out of me, but they never make that connection.

If it was wrong when it was done to you, if you felt dehumanized and limited and demeaned and denigrated when it was done to you, why would you turn around and do it to her because she's Jewish or to him because he's gay or to him because he's Hispanic or whatever? I don't understand it.

Beck: One of your columns that would have been most read, in large part just because I know it circulated over the Internet -- Not just people that read the newspaper read the column the day after September 11, because of its circulation. You talked about that as a nation that in the immediacy we would look for heightened security, misguided talk on revoking basic freedoms, but that we would also come together and fight this new enemy. Six years later what do you think? Was that just misguided talk, or did we revoke basic freedoms, or are we fighting the proper enemy, things like that? What would you comment on?

Pitts: I think in a lot of ways the column -- You know, people tell me the column was prescient, and I look at the column and think they misread some things. They say it was prescient because of the talk about taking away basic civil rights. And I think that is no question that that's been done, when you've got people being rounded up without habeas corpus, without access to courts or attorneys and the government doesn't even acknowledge that it has them, there's something wrong there. When you've got increased surveillance and you've got warrantless searches and all the rest of these things are going on, there is something going on -- something gone wrong here.

What troubles me, though, is that we charged off after the wrong enemy. We sort of knocked off Afghanistan, which is the home base of Osama Bin Laden, and then quickly forgot about it, and did this quick pivot for Iraq based on this trumped up intelligence and this willful misreading of the intelligence. That really frustrates me. It's like in World War II if, you know, you got attacked by Japan, so we went to war against Brazil. That to me is pretty much what happened here. And I find it very frustrating.

I think what we've seen in this last seven years is a seismic shift in our role in the world. I'm really worried not just about where we are now but where we're going to be ten, twenty years from now in terms of our prestige, our ability to lead the world, all the rest of these things based on what we've done over this last several years, because I think we have just made foreign policy blunder after foreign policy blunder these last seven years. The only thing that’s worse than ignorance is arrogance in your ignorance, and that's where we’ve been, arrogant and ignorant.

And that's where we've been, and I'm a very frustrated person. I am more frustrated than I can remember being in my adult life over anything happening politically, and that goes back to -- who was the first president I voted for? Maybe Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and Reagan. This is the most frustrated I can remember being, because we have been demonstratively wrong and yet also demonstratively arrogant in our wrongness, and it's going to come back on us. It already is.

Tags: Barack Obama civil rights Iowa