When nationally syndicated newspaper columnist Leonard Pitts spoke at Elon in September of 2015 as part of a lecture series featuring Pulitzer Prize winners, it was only a few months after the massacre of nine African-Americans by a white supremacist during Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It touched off a wave of vigils and marches nationwide. It left Americans who are white struggling with what to say or how to support Americans who are black as a result of that fresh atrocity — one of thousands perpetrated over the years. This is how Pitts, whose columns for the Miami Herald are published regularly in the Burlington Times-News, addressed that question during his speech at Elon. I took it from a report about the speech written by my friend and now-university colleague Eric Townsend.
“What do you do if you are decent and white? What is your role? What is your place in this new era of anger and activism?” Pitts said at McCrary Theater. “Maybe you cannot march. Maybe you have no money or celebrity to give. But you can see. And you can let it be known that you can see.”
Stand with minority groups in their own quest to be heard, he said. One of the most powerful moments for Pitts following June’s mass shooting in a black Charleston church was seeing a large crowd of white people marching through the city, chanting “black lives matter.”
“I don’t know that I have the words to explain to you how good that video was for my soul,” he said. “Indeed, it would not be too much of an overstatement to say I loved those white sisters and brothers in that moment for what they did.”
This observation by Leonard Pitts makes it clear the direct statement that black lives matter truly does matter and white America must not only say it but live it each day. Our nation pays an ever higher cost because this has been ignored for far too long. And yes, listening also matters.
I tracked down the story mainly because I was going to post a column I wrote about the speech in 2015. I attended the lecture and felt it had several powerful and enlightening moments. After he spoke, Pitts was part of a social event at the home of Elon’s president at the time, Leo Lambert. He met a few people in a small room off the large reception area where most everyone else congregated. I was delighted to meet and share a few moments with him without a crowd close by. We had a nice but short conversation — I didn’t want to monopolize his time. I told him a bit about our community. He wasn’t surprised to learn that he was among our most polarizing columnists. Half the people I spoke to threatened the cancel their subscription if I didn’t stop running Pitts. The other half threatened to cancel if I stopped running Pitts.
And neither side believed the other existed.
Which explains a lot, I suppose.
Anyway, the column I wrote in 2015 is below. It offers examples of ingrained or institutional bias or privilege in terms of gender or ethnicity. I think it’s something most have seen or felt in their own lives if they think about it, which brings it closer to home.
This is a Leonard Pitts story, but don’t let that derail reading any further. I know about 50 percent will want to stop immediately, but really hang with me a second. This is something everyone can probably relate to. I know I did and my spouse really did.
Pitts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning and often controversial columnist for the Miami Herald who is syndicated in 150 or so newspapers including the Times-News shared this personal anecdote during the annual Baird Pulitzer Lecture on Sept. 24 at Elon University. Regular readers of Pitts know he seldom writes about his family, he stays on top of hot-button social issues instead, the kind of issues that get nasty phone calls and threatening emails.
But he’s a real person, with a family and all the associated highs and lows that come with it. In fact, he said the last time he was at Elon his first granddaughter was born. He noted on Sept. 24 (2015) that another granddaughter was due at any moment, so appearances at Elon take on special meaning. He thought that was pretty cool. And it is.
The more salient Pitts anecdote, though, was more directly to the point of his lecture.
It seems that one day his wife bought tires from a garage. Not long after, a problem developed with one tire. Pitts said his spouse drove the car to the garage to have something done about it. She was met with a condescending attitude by the manager who didn’t even take a look at the tire. Based on her description of the problem, the manager determined that she had brushed her tire up against a curb and that the garage would not replace it because she caused the problem.
She was seething.
Pitts himself went to the garage, explained the problem and before he could even complain about how his wife was treated, the manager had the car up on a lift and inspected the tire. He came back saying that a defect had been found and the tire would be replaced. The service was perfect, polite and professional — as it should be.
This is, of course, an example of bias — and not based upon race but gender. The garage manager refused to believe a woman could know anything about a car and didn’t take her seriously. It’s the kind of bias that’s considered institutional, something so ingrained most don’t realize it happens at all. But it does occur to the elderly and to teens; to immigrants or to the poor and to people of all ethnicities. It even happens to rich white men who find themselves at the mercy of someone who doesn’t like rich white men.
In one way or another, it’s happened to nearly everyone.
I saw it happen to my spouse. She wanted to buy a car on her own. She studied the models, compared options and examined prices before deciding to head to a dealership. She was prepared. She knew what she wanted and what she wanted to pay. I merely tagged along for moral support.
From the time we walked in, the salesman talked to me, not her. I told him repeatedly that this was her deal, her decision, her payment — not mine and that he should address her directly. He didn’t get it. He continued to look mainly at me, even going so far as to answer her questions while looking in my direction. As she took the car out for a test drive, he kept talking to me in the back seat. I continued to tell the guy he was mistaken. He was clueless. It was embarrassing.
Ultimately she did buy a car from the guy — but she wasn’t that happy about it, I even advised asking to see another salesman, but she declined. After the paperwork was signed and we headed out, we noticed that the paperwork was in my name, not hers. To this day, when items about her car come to the house, they’re addressed to me. It makes her angry all over again.
Needless to say we won’t buy our next car there.
Here’s another example based on my own observation. It also involved a car sale. It was around the turn of the century and my now late father-in-law wanted to buy a new car. Born in Italy, he moved to America in the mid-1950s and didn’t speak English well, although he could read it. He asked me to go with him. The salesman kept trying to steer us to the used cars even though my father-in-law told him repeatedly he was only interested in the newest car he could find — “something with zero miles” if possible. The salesman failed to comprehend that the older man dressed in the clothes of a laborer and speaking in broken English could possibly afford a new car and treated him shabbily. Too bad for him, my father-in-law was prepared to pay cash. The salesman got nothing.
This time I was seething. My father-in-law shrugged sadly. It was nothing new for him.
People have to understand and notice bias before learning anything about ways to end it.