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Leonard Pitts Jr.: The ‘peculiar institution’ is no artifact of the dead past

Perhaps you’ve heard of white fragility.

The term was popularized by sociologist Robin DiAngelo in her 2018 book of the same name that seeks to explain why white people often find it so hard to discuss race, why the subject frequently makes them angry and defensive. Well, a textbook example of that fragility recently roiled social media.

We’re indebted to Saira Rao, a former candidate for Congress from Colorado. She tweeted a screenshot of an online review from a tourist who was “extremely disappointed” at having visited a Southern plantation only to find the tour included material on – of all things – slavery. “We felt we were being lectured and bashed,” this person wrote.

The Washington Post and The Root did some digging and found, not shockingly, that this is not unique. There’s apparently a vocal minority of white people who go to Southern plantations expecting Rhett Butler, Scarlett O’Hara and fiddle-dee-dee and who catch the vapors upon finding that their historical tours include, well … history.

“Would not recommend,” wrote Matthew Cloke. “Tour was all about how hard it was for the slaves …”

And you wonder what Fountain Hughes might make of that. “If I thought … had any idea that I’d ever be a slave again,” he once said, “I’d take a gun and just end it all right away. Because you’re nothing but a dog. You’re not a thing but a dog.”

Another tourist griped of being “subjected to a lecture aimed to instill guilt.”

And you’d love to hear this person make that argument to Lou Smith. The former Mississippi slave once told of a white man who fathered several children by a black woman he owned. “And when her babies would get about a year or two of age he’d sell them and it would break her heart. She never got to keep them. When her fourth baby was born and was about two months old she just studied all the time about how she would have to give it up and one day she said, ‘I just decided I’m not going to let old Master sell this baby; he just ain’t going to do it.’ She got up and give it something out of a bottle and pretty soon it was dead.”

“The brief mentions of the former owners were defamatory,” one tourist complained.

And wouldn’t you pay to see her chastise Mary Armstrong for “defaming” her owners? “You see,” the former Missouri slave once explained, “My mama belong to old William Cleveland and old Polly Cleveland, and they was the meanest two white folks what ever lived, ’cause they was always beatin’ on their slaves. … (Polly) whipped my little sister, what was only nine months old, to death. She come and took the diaper offen my little sister and whipped till the blood jes’ ran – jes’ ’cause she cry like all babies do.”

Then there’s one Jamie Hollingsworth, who wrote: “Very racist. If you’re white, don’t go.”

No, if you’re white, please do. If only so you never sound as ignorant as Jamie Hollingsworth.

It would be disheartening at any time to be reminded that such pusillanimous thinking still exists. It’s particularly disheartening in August of 2019, as we mark the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery. For as much as some of us may wish otherwise, the “peculiar institution” is no artifact of the dead past. It shaped today. It is shaping tomorrow. And we cannot fix that until we face that.

Yet some people still clutch their pearls when the very word is invoked. They need to get over it.

Rhett Butler was fiction. But Fountain Hughes, Lou Smith and Mary Armstrong were assuredly real. And if you’re one of those who is vexed by that reminder?

Well frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, FL 33172. Contact him via email at