May 2, 2009 in Opinion

Statistics deflate accusation of racism

 

It’s probably safe to say the Idaho man who submitted a letter to the editor by e-mail recently is no fan of syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. Still, he claims to have read Pitts’ commentary over the years – read it a lot.

Assuming it’s not the sign of a masochistic disorder, you have to admire that kind of open-mindedness. But there’s a limit, apparently, judging by the suggested headline: “Choking on Pitts.”

The letter began with an assertion that Pitts’ column has been showing up in The Spokesman-Review “much more than usual” and the author wanted to know why.

I’ll come back to the frequency issue, but I want to get straight to a more troubling allegation that appears later in the letter and provides the context for the writer’s distress.

A Pitts column that appeared April 8 under the headline “A lesson in the queen’s embrace” commented on how much the public’s perception of first lady Michelle Obama has changed since the campaign days when she was seen by some, in Pitts’ words, as “a militant, terrorist, fist-bumping sister girl whose hatred of America was exceeded only by her hatred of ‘whitey.’ ” Yet, there was Ms. Obama last month, exchanging friendly touches with Queen Elizabeth II. To quote Pitts again: “ ‘Whitey’ doesn’t come any whiter than that.”

Not funny, complained the letter writer. Nor was it funny when Pitts talked in other columns about “gun-toting goobers” and “conspiracy goobers.”

Such references, the letter writer explains, are part of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Pitts’ “caustic doses of racist commentary.”

Why should a black columnist get away with toxic language that would be prohibited for others? He tries to make it look “harmless and humorous, but he is fooling no one,” notes the letter writer.

If it’s true, that’s a valid concern. Racism is racism. Hate speech is hate speech. It doesn’t matter who’s taking it or who’s dishing it out. It’s not acceptable.

If it’s true.

Pitts often writes about issues of racial tension, but is he really spewing “caustic doses of racist commentary”?

Says the letter writer: “I have read his column for years and know Pitts to be fond of using terms like ‘whitey’ ‘cracker’ and ‘goober’ …”

I confess I don’t see the racial overtones that are so apparent to the letter writer in “goober,” but “whitey”? “Cracker”?

Since June 1994, The Spokesman-Review has been stored in a digital archive, so it’s pretty easy to check that out. During that time, we have published roughly 900 columns by Leonard Pitts Jr. A little search action provided some interesting data.

In some 900 columns over 15 years, the word “goober” has appeared twice, namely the two instances cited by the letter writer.

In some 900 columns over 15 years, the word “whitey” has appeared twice, both times in reference to unproved allegations during the presidential election campaign that Michelle Obama had used the term. In other words, Pitts was not applying the term to anyone; he was writing about the controversy.

In some 900 columns over 15 years, the word “Cracker” has appeared one time. In a 1998 commentary, reminiscing about the cars he had driven in his youth, Pitts elaborated thusly:

“I love the past, man. Love Motown songs, Cracker Jack and ‘Speed Racer.’ ”

If Pitts has a fondness, it’s not for racial epithets but for caramel-coated popcorn.

Now, remember that the letter writer initially questioned why Pitts was appearing “much more” often.

If the numbers haven’t worn you down yet, here come some more. Over the past year, Pitts’ columns have averaged six appearances a month, ranging from five to eight (except December when he was on vacation most of the month). April was one of the two months with eight, by the way. The average since June 1994? Between five and six.

So, more often? Yeah. Much more often? You decide, but I’m willing to concede that one.

But the racism charge has my head pounding. The capacity to keep hold of beloved but erroneous impressions, even buffeted with facts at hurricane velocity, is amazing to behold.

Doug Floyd is the editorial page editor for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at 509-459-5466 or dougf@spokesman.com.


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