Pitts explores race relations in lecture at Cal Poly

Leonard Pitts Jr. addresses a packed house Thursday at Cal Poly’s Spanos Theatre.
Leonard Pitts Jr. addresses a packed house Thursday at Cal Poly’s Spanos Theatre. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. had an epiphany one day.

After contemplating the ongoing arguments about race relations in America — how much the country has or has not improved in that regard — he decided that it could basically be narrowed down to the old adage of how much water is in the glass.

Pitts contends that whites and blacks have different ways of measuring racial progress, and that divide has served as an impediment to open and honest discussion.

Whites judge progress by how far blacks have come, he said. Blacks, he said, measure it by how far they have yet to go.

But Pitts, an author and nationally syndicated columnist who writes for The Miami Herald, said the answer to the question of whether the glass is half empty or half full is simple.

“It depends on how thirsty you are,” said Pitts, who spoke to a packed audience Thursday morning at Cal Poly’s Spanos Theatre as part of the university’s “Provocative Perspectives” series.

Where race is concerned, Pitts said both whites and blacks have a need to shift blame. Blacks have cried wolf and used racism as an excuse for failure. Whites, often out of fear or feelings of guilt, do not want to talk about it.

Each group puts the onus on the other to bridge the divide, and therefore, no one takes responsibility for change, he said.

“When it comes to race, we don’t want to look too close, or we’ll see that none of us has held up our end of the bargain,” Pitts said. “It’s easier to argue about the water in the glass.”

Pitts’ talk comes at a time when San Luis Obispo County has had several recent incidents that are being investigated as hate crimes. In one, a wooden cross was burned at the Arroyo Grande home of a black teenager.

Pitts touched on what the community should do to deal with such acts, noting that the problem is one of “being reactive instead of proactive.”

“What needs to happen is that things should be in place before the cross burning,” he said. “Then, when there is a cross burning, the response has more weight and gravitas.”

Pitts called on the media to be more vigilant about calling out racist acts.

He also emphasized the role of educators to provide historical context and teach critical thinking skills in a world where ideological lines are becoming more pronounced. As well, more social interaction with people of different backgrounds, he said, will serve to tear down walls and alleviate ignorance.

The key, he said, is to understand that the goal as a society isn’t to make sure everyone is colorblind.

“That’s just blind,” he said.

Rather, it’s knowing when it’s appropriate to see a person’s race and when it’s not so important.

“All of us have different facets of who we are,” he said.

Pitts, a native Californian who spent part of his childhood in South Central Los Angeles, is married and has five children. He lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C., but writes about social issues, family life and pop culture for the The Miami Herald, which he joined in 1991 as its pop music critic.

His column appears Sundays on the Opinion page of The Tribune.

Pitts will release his second novel at the beginning of next year and is participating in a PBS documentary on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.