Columnist Leonard Pitts tells Lawrence crowd it’s time for white Americans to ‘stop eating Jim Crow’
photo by: John Young
Pulitzer-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. addressed a crowd of about 350 people at the ACLU of Kansas’ first Free State Forum on Saturday, calling for a realization that people “don’t need common blood to reach common ground.”
Much of Pitts’ talk, held at Abe and Jake’s Landing in downtown Lawrence, focused on issues of race in America, and how those concepts are playing a role in the presidential election. He quoted a lesser-known speech from Martin Luther King Jr. to explain the concept of “eating Jim Crow” — how white southern aristocracy during the Reconstruction era symbolically fed the white underclass.
“And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man,” Pitts said, quoting the speech King delivered at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March on March 25, 1965.
Pitts said these words were a succinct summary of what he believes is the greatest con in American history: rather than provide poor white Americans a living wage, affordable housing, quality schools or health care, the money and political interest in the country has given them “whiteness.”
Historically, Pitts said, when the white underclass would complain about working conditions, the “money” would respond with threats to bring in black workers for less pay. Today, he said, the same principle is still being applied in order to prevent the underclasses from uniting into a powerful force for change, regardless of party lines and other differences, or even imagining the possibility of doing so.
“For a visceral example of this, you need look no further than the presidential election of 2016, in which Republican voters have fallen in love with a preening, narcissistic bully who doesn’t even represent the things they’ve always said that they value,” Pitts said, referring to the presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who Pitts said has “routinely insulted and alienated Muslims, African-Americans, Hispanics and women.”
“How is it that the party of religious conservatism is swooning for a man who cannot name a Bible verse?” he asked.
Pitts also discussed disproportionate rates of incarceration, traffic stops and police frisking of African-Americans, despite statistics showing that a majority of drug users and dealers in this country are white, and that whites are more likely to be found carrying contraband. He also named nine individual black men and boys who have recently died as a result of police use of force, including Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Sean Bell.
Pitts concluded his talk emphasizing the importance of the election.
“Six months from now we will find out if the greatest con job in history will take a serial liar and open bigot to White House,” he said. “… We are long overdue for a moment of reckoning in this country, a moment of truth on race and class. It is long past time that we begin to call that con job for what it is and help people to see the intersection between their misery and the misery of those other people who don’t look like them on the other side of town, because Jim Crow is a pitiful excuse for a meal.”