The difference between ignorance and racism: One is curable

April 25, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - People keep asking what I think of David Williams' column. That's because his column, published recently in the student newspaper of Oregon State University, was inspired by one of mine. Also because his hacked a lot of people off.

My piece dealt with black America's support for singer and accused child pornographer R. Kelly. I argued that black folk reflexively defend those among us who transgress out of a sense of shared identity. An understandable impulse, I said, but often a counterproductive one.

Mr. Williams, his language sometimes echoing uncomfortably close to mine, used my observations to make a less nuanced point and reach a far different conclusion. While careful to concede that no group has a monopoly on poor behavior, he said that support for the likes of Mr. Kelly demonstrates a "lack of morality" among black people.


For the record: I don't know that I'd call Mr. Williams a racist - or a plagiarist, though he comes near both. He's definitely guilty of cockamamie reasoning and blithe self-righteousness.

Having seen this movie before, you know how it comes out. People demanded his head and off it came. Mr. Williams was fired from the paper amid abject apologies.

Given my opinion of his work, you may wonder why I'd have a problem with that. Truth is, I wouldn't if he were 40. But having taught writers his age and, more important, having been a writer his age, I can tell you that cockamamie reasoning and blithe self-righteousness pretty much come with the territory.

So rather than getting fired - a relatively easy out - I wish Mr. Williams had been required to sit down and discuss what he said with the people he said it about. He might have learned something. As it is, he will probably only learn to feel sorry for himself.

Unfortunately, when it comes to race, we draw no distinction between ignorance and animus. And so, we often miss the chance to make a constructive difference.

Let me tell you a story. Soon after I won Joe Pulitzer's prize, I received a congratulatory e-mail that praised me lavishly. It closed by calling me a credit to my race.

Which is, of course, on the black Top 10 list of patronizing insults. So my instinct was to fire off a reply that would have left a crater where that reader had been.

But given that the tone of the missive had otherwise been so unambiguous in its acclaim, I decided to take another tack. Instead of getting out my flame-thrower, I replied with an observation that surely the race the reader had in mind was human.

Long story short, there followed several earnest apologies. The insult had indeed not risen from malice, but ignorance - which is not a character flaw, but a simple lack of knowledge. That means it can be cured by information. And most people are willing to accept information, provided it's offered in a way that doesn't make them feel 6 inches tall.

Granted, there are white people who will resent under any circumstances the notion that where race is concerned, they have things to learn. Similarly, there are blacks who will resent the notion that they have an obligation to teach.

To the first, I would only note that racism flourishes in the darkness of closed minds.

And to the latter, I would say this: If we don't teach, who will?

No, black America is not materially diminished because a David Williams gets his feelings hurt. But multiply him by a thousand. Or imagine him at 40, another white cop, judge or corporate executive going around with something stupid stuck in his head. So we're talking about enlightened self-interest here.

Though they often walk hand in hand, racism and ignorance are separate things. And maybe, if we confront the one early enough, we won't have to confront the other at all.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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