Leonard Pitts: Better to ask, ‘Why can’t we have nice things?’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 9, 2021

By Leonard Pitts

Its Constitution fixed the value of African Americans at three-fifths that of other humans.

Its bloodiest war was over whether they should be enslaved.

It has no institution — not one — that is free of racial discrimination.

Yet, we are supposed to take seriously those who now ask if America is a racist country? It seems to have obsessed many of us, this shallow question with the obvious answer, since it was raised by a speech last week from Tim Scott, the only black Republican senator. “Hear me clearly,” he said, “America is not a racist country.” He was echoed — the political calculus is self-evident — by Vice President Harris.

For all that, it is a silly question, in line with our tradition of same where race is concerned. Many of us use such questions to deflect (“What about Black-on-Black crime?”) and delude (“What about Black racism?”) — to obscure truth that might otherwise be revealed.

But the question around which author Heather McGhee built her new book, “The Sum of Us,” is different. Innocuous as it sounds on first hearing, it goes to the root of what keeps America from redeeming its potential. Why, she wants to know, can’t we have nice things?

“Whether it was Texas and the power grid, or the pandemic or it’s Donald Trump himself,” she says, “there’s just some sense that we can’t get it together as a country to do some of the basic things and that there used to be more of a sense of rowing in the same direction. … And that led to more public investment, more sense of bipartisanship.”

But all that, she contends, came with a catch: racial exclusion. And when that became legally untenable, that sense of comity fell apart. Like Jonathan Metzl in “Dying of Whiteness,” McGhee makes the provocative case that white racism victimizes white people. Because they’ve been taught to regard race as a zero-sum competition, many would rather do without than see Blacks enjoy … anything.

By way of illustration, McGhee writes of how “resplendent public swimming pools, some big enough to hold thousands of swimmers at a time” once dotted the land. Then courts ruled that Black people could not be excluded from this public amenity. The pools promptly disappeared.

Why can’t we have nice things? Now, there’s a question worth pondering — preferably while sitting out back on a blistering summer day with one’s feet in the lukewarm water of a kiddie pool. McGhee says some version of what happened with the pools also happened with factories, schools, the environment, housing.

“The Sum of Us” argues “that racism is so deeply embedded in our politics and our policy making that nobody can avoid the distortions.” McGhee notes with concern how much money and media are arrayed to defend that ugly status quo. But she is also encouraged by all the white people who rose last year to declare that Black Lives Matter.

“It’s increasingly clear,” she says, “that racism is not in our national interest and it’s costing us so much, whether that’s calculated in the trillions of dollars lost to our economy because of the racial-economic divide, or it’s the lives lost in a pandemic that was made worse because of the vulnerabilities and dysfunctions of a racist economy and public health system. I do not believe … the rising generation of Americans is going to be willing to bear the cost of that much longer.”

Let us hope she’s right. Because if her question is challenging, its answer is heartbreaking.

Why can’t we have nice things? Actually, we could.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.