But who's keeping score?

January 26, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - I wrote 98 columns last year. By my count, 24 of them - one in four - had to do with race.

It's a typical tally and one I'm quite comfortable with. But it's too many for John, a college student in Broward County, Fla. John says his sociology class keeps a "scorecard" on how often I write about the "R" word. Apparently, I've surpassed whatever number John's class considers optimum. As he put it in a recent e-mail:

"Please! ENOUGH about race!"

John wants to see me tackle the subject on a more "sporadic" basis.

"You are," he says, "WAY too talented to limit your ... topics to this area on a continual basis."

Well.

John's complaint is hardly new, nor is it unique to me. Rare is the black columnist who hasn't heard some version of it.

Before we go on, let me stipulate the obvious: Yes, your humble correspondent writes about race more than any other single topic. But, in his defense, he also writes with great frequency about pop culture, family issues and, since Sept. 11, terrorism.

I can show you the numbers if you'd like. You see, from time to time, I've kept a scorecard myself ... an admission I make rather sheepishly. But keeping track came to seem necessary after some guy - some earlier "John" - tried to convince me that fully 75 percent of my stuff is about, well ... you know.

They always frame the complaint as a simple matter of numbers. Too much of this, not enough of that. Yet the funny thing is, in nine years of doing this, I've never received a single complaint of too many columns on family, too many on pop culture, even though, as already noted, I rant about those things almost as often as I do race.

The reason is self-evident: It's not about numbers at all, but about the fact that race makes some people uncomfortable, pushes buttons they'd rather not have pushed.

I made this argument to John, by the way. He allowed that this was a "very good point" and suggested I elaborate on it in a column. So here I am, but warily, for I am loath to leave the impression that the important issue here is me and what I write about. I mean, who cares?

No, the only reason I trouble you with this is that John's complaint echoes those heard by black professionals across many fields of endeavor. There's always this sense of being on probation, of being watched, never quite trusted to do the job you were hired for because, see, unlike your white coworkers, you have these biases that cloud your judgment.

So colleagues wonder if the black cop was too lenient on the black suspect, if the black banker extended credit to the black business too readily, if the black professor went too easy on the black student.

For the black professional in question, it's hard not to feel the weight of their wondering, this largely unspoken but tacitly understood demand that you prove yourself - constantly. It's crazy-making, life lived on tenterhooks. If you don't believe me, ask some black reporter about the "black" stories she hesitated or declined to write because there was an unwritten quota of how much "black" she could get away with.

But her white colleagues don't have this problem. I'm pretty sure no one has ever told George Will he has too much talent to limit himself to writing about politics and that no one ever advised Mike Royko to be more "sporadic" in telling stories about little guys and corrupt politicians.

To the contrary, their readers understand these to be signature topics of those writers, subjects to which they bring particular passion, energy and expertise. Agree or disagree with them, we respect what they have to say because we know they know this territory.

Yet when it comes to race, knowing the territory only makes you suspect.

It says something about our racial immaturity that some people find it necessary to keep a scorecard of my columns.

Says something about the quality of life on tenterhooks that one of them is me.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at lpitts@herald.com, or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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