Pitts column: Face up to the withering truth

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 28, 2008

By Leonard Pitts
Sure, I’ll answer your question. It rose from a recent column about the Democratic primary in West Virginia. The contest, you will recall, was a decisive victory for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama, amid reports that two in 10 voters in that overwhelmingly white state said race was a deciding factor in their decisions. I called that atavistic, to which dozens of you responded: if two in 10 whites voting for Clinton is wrong, isn’t the overwhelming support of blacks for Obama equally wrong?
It isn’t quite the stumper some folks seem to think.
I suppose the first thing that needs saying is that I have no objection to people of any marginalized ethnicity, race, religion or gender voting in a bloc for some member of their group. That’s how they become less marginalized, how they win a seat at the table. The Irish did it in New York, the Cubans did it in Miami, many women are doing it now.
Thing is, that’s not what happened in West Virginia. Not unless you’re going to tell me with a straight face that that vote reflected marginalized whites (an oxymoron if ever there was one) seeking a seat at the table. No, all the evidence, statistical and anecdotal, tells us those folks did not vote for Clinton because she is white; they voted “against” Obama because he is black. There’s a difference.
So there is something rather specious in all this hand-wringing about black support for Obama. Moreover, it is based upon a fallacy. Namely, that black support for Obama was automatic. The inconvenient truth is that it was Clinton who started out with the black vote sewn up. Then two things happened: (1) Obama’s win in Iowa demonstrated his viability, and (2) Clinton and her surrogates made a series of racially insensitive remarks.
The willingness of black voters to support white candidates, then, is not at issue, much as some would like to pretend otherwise. Blacks have long supported white candidates. (Like they had a choice.) No, the issue is that some whites still find it impossible to return the favor.
Me, I’ve been around long enough to understand that, while some folks asked about black support for Obama out of honest curiosity, most did it to change the subject, the best defense being a good offense.
One encounters this particular “best defense” often when a discussion of race points to conclusions some of us would prefer not to reach. So instead they paint themselves as victims of a double standard, posing profoundly unserious questions like: Why is there a Miss Black America when there could be no Miss White America? Why is there no White Enterprise magazine or United Caucasian College Fund?
The point is not to get answers รณ those are obvious. Rather, it is to carve an escape route through the thicket of logic. It is the rhetorical equivalent of saying, “Your shoe’s untied!” and then running away when the other person looks down. To take the questions seriously, you have to believe black and white stand equivalent in this country, that one does not hold and has never held advantage over the other, so that we should worry white kids might be shoved to the margins if, say, no United Caucasian College Fund existed to help them. That is, putting it mildly, an absurd conceit. Yet it is a conceit some of us still sell and others still buy.
So here’s “my” question: When will people stop trying to weasel out of what is self-evident? After all, there’s no mystery about West Virginia. It offers just the latest evidence that something old and ugly has not just survived in us, but flourished. What’s it going to take to make some of us stop hiding out from that hard and withering truth? What will it take to make them face it?
I answered your question. Anybody want to answer mine?
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Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His email-mail address is lpitts@miamiherald.com.