Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. said many members of Congress oppose President Barack Obama not because of his controversial policies, but because of his race.
Pitts spoke to a crowd of more than 200 students, faculty and community members as part of the Mary Alice Davis Distinguished Lectureship, a series that brings distinguished journalists to campus to discuss the role of journalism in society. Pitts works as a columnist for the Miami Herald and said President Obama is currently receiving an education on what it means to be the first black president, and what it means to be black in a country with a troubled racial history.
Pitts said many thought the election of Barack Obama in 2008 marked the beginning of a “post-racial” America, the notion that America has moved beyond race, but that notion is not entirely accurate. Pitts said Obama’s political opponents use race as a motive, though not explicitly stated, in their opposition against him.
“[Obama] has failed to understand how the opposition is always his political opponents,” Pitts said. “When you’re black, you need to factor that into whatever you’re doing.”
Pitts said that Obama was like Jackie Robinson, “trapped when he promised not to do anything when people [threw things at him] on the field.”
He said Obama is the first black president and he has to be above the norm, as any other black person who is the first black anything — having been raised by a white mother in Hawaii, he didn’t know racism like other black people and doesn’t know how to respond to the slander and opposition he now faces.
Pitts also said the media was insensitive to race because it didn’t know how to address it. He referred to the 2007 Tucker Carlson incident in which the Fox News correspondent asked a panel of white men if Barack Obama was black enough.
Pitts won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary after 13 years of writing for The Herald. One of his most famous articles is his Sept. 11 column in which he called the “unknown author of this suffering” a beast and a monster. Pitts received more than 26,000 e-mail responses to his column within two weeks after publication.
Glenn Frankel, Director for the School of Journalism, said he thought Pitts embodied the essence of journalism because he didn’t demonstrate any conventional wisdom and looked at everything with a fresh view. Frankel said journalists should always begin with the facts and try to report truth as they see it.
“The media is an American institution and we all have a racial history that you have to be aware of and educate yourself about,” Frankel said. “What journalists are supposed to do is educate themselves and educate the rest of us. You’re never done. You keep asking questions of yourself and the people you cover.”
Biology freshman Zachary Rodriguez said he agreed with what Pitts said about the president and the media. Rodriguez said he thinks President Obama will win re-election and that he hopes the country will progress in regards to racial history.
“I do wish that I could do more to help the media show that they are showing one part of the story and ignoring the [racial] inaccuracies of another,” Rodriguez said. “I want to be part of something that will help people look at the whole picture.”
Pitts ended his lecture urging people to have conversations about the race relations of the past and their role in society today. He also said that by 2040, the U.S. will not have a white majority.
“The future is coming and Barack Obama is only the [beginning].”