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Sometimes, Race Is More Distraction Than Explanation

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Sometimes, Race Is More Distraction Than Explanation

The top of the Flint Water Plant tower is seen in Flint, Michigan in this February 7, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/Files

Dear white people:

As you no doubt know, the water crisis in Flint, Mich., returned to the headlines last week with news that the state attorney general is charging three government officials for their alleged roles in the debacle. It makes this a convenient moment to deal with something that has irked me about the way this disaster is framed.

Namely, the fact that people who look like you often get left out of it.

Consider some of the headlines:

The Racist Roots of Flint’s Water Crisis — Huffington Post

How A Racist System Has Poisoned The Water in Flint — The Root

A Question of Environmental Racism — The New York Times

As has been reported repeatedly, Flint is a majority black city with a 41 percent poverty rate, so critics ask if the water would have been so blithely poisoned, and if it would have taken media so long to notice, had the victims been mostly white.

It’s a sensible question, but whenever I hear it, I engage in a little thought experiment. I try to imagine what happened in Flint happening in Bowie, a city in Maryland where blacks outnumber whites, but the median household income is more than $100,000 a year and the poverty rate is about 3 percent. I can’t.

Then I try to imagine it happening in Morgantown, West Virginia, where whites outnumber blacks, the median household income is about $32,000 a year, and the poverty rate approaches 40 percent — and I find that I easily can. It helps that Bowie is a few minutes from Washington, D.C., while Morgantown is more than an hour from the nearest city of any size.

My point is neither that race carries no weight nor that it had no impact on what happened in Flint. No, my point is only that sometimes, race is more distraction than explanation. Indeed, that’s the story of our lives.

To be white in America is to have been sold a bill of goods that there exists between you and people of color a gap of morality, behavior, intelligence and fundamental humanity. Forces of money and power have often used that perceived gap to con people like you into acting against their own self-interest.

In the Civil War, white men too poor to own slaves died in grotesque numbers to protect the “right” of a few plutocrats to continue that despicable practice. In the Industrial Revolution, white workers agitating for a living wage were kept in line by the threat that their jobs would be given to “Negroes.” In the Depression, white families mired in poverty were mollified by signs reading “Whites Only.”

You have to wonder what would happen if white people — particularly, those of modest means — ever saw that gap for the fiction it is? What if they ever realized you don’t need common color to reach common ground? What if all of us were less reflexive in using race as our prism, just because it’s handy?

You see, for as much as Flint is a story about how we treat people of color, it is also — I would say more so — a story about how we treat the poor, the way we render them invisible. That was also the story of Hurricane Katrina. Remember news media’s shock at discovering there were Americans too poor to escape a killer storm?

Granted, there is a discussion to be had about how poverty is constructed in this country; the black poverty rate is higher than any other with the exception of Native Americans, and that’s no coincidence. But it’s equally true that, once you are poor, the array of slights and indignities to which you are subjected is remarkably consistent across that racial gap.

That fact should induce you — and all of us — to reconsider the de facto primacy we assign this arbitrary marker of identity. After all, 37 percent of the people in Flint are white.

But that’s done nothing to make their water clean.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)


Photo: The top of the Flint Water Plant tower is seen in Flint, Michigan in this February 7, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/Files

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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  1. Godzilla April 24, 2016

    To be white in America is to have been sold a bill of goods that there
    exists between you and people of color a gap of morality, behavior,
    intelligence and fundamental humanity.

    Utter and complete bullcrap. The race pimps on the Left are a disgrace to the gene pool. Are there racists, sure, white ones, black ones and just about every Liberal Progressive regardless of color. The problem isn’t skin color, it’s government and their actions. The Liberal’s want government to fix the problems that they have caused, which will never happen. Ignorance abounds in the Liberal mind.

    1. atc333 April 24, 2016

      You mean like the Bush II Great Recession, tax cuts for job creators, massive redistribution of wealth to the top 2%, massive Federal Deficits caused by the loss of over 13.5 Trillion dollars of Federal Tax revenues,which the job creators used to create more wealth, buying up assets of the 98% who were financially destroyed by that recession? You mean like not reforming the Federal Tax code to eliminate a substantial number of US Corporations and rich not paying any taxes, and by not removing tax incentives for Corporate America to export jobs, factories, and technology offshore? Are those the Pimps you are speaking of?

    2. CrankyToo April 24, 2016

      Apparently, ignorance abounds at your house, as well.

    3. charleo1 April 24, 2016

      You say it’s complete bull because you’re still living in the dark. The proverbial clueless mark, that has yet to discover his pockets picked, his bank account cleaned. Still believing the slick Con is looking out for him, and his. Sure, if you close one eye, and squint hard with the other, one can almost make the case it was the poor, and a few Lefties like Barney Frank, and Chris Dodd, that caused the Worldwide economic catastrophe. And that’s good enough as long as the lie exonerates your Party that supports the kind of racist, White Power politics that suits your fancy. It’s exactly what Pitts is talking about. So thanks for the real life example.

    4. Eleanore Whitaker April 24, 2016

      Wrong…the problem is gender…Men who can’t shut their mouths long enough to let their brains function. I hate to be the bearer of bad news Mr. Ideology. But, the entire planet is NOT divided into Liberal or Conservative. That exists ONLY in a pathetic mind like yours. Move on with the times or make like Rip Van Winkle. Who cares? We’ve all had enough of you using the labels like liberal, socialist, communist and any other”ist” you can use to spew your hateful BS.

      You want to call yourself a COnservative? Fine and dandy..just stop eroding our tax revenues to make you you you and your CONmen richer than God. The times they are a’ changing and you better get off your lazy big mouth butt and change with them or you get left in the dust. You have NO power over anyone but yourself.

    5. greenlantern1 April 24, 2016

      We have had ONE, convicted, attorney-general.
      Nixon’s first, John Mitchell!!
      We have had ONE VP that made a plea bargain.
      Nixon’s first, Spiro Agnew!
      We have had ONE president that received a pardon!
      Republican “law”?
      Were they liberals?

      1. Phil Christensen April 24, 2016

        Well, we do have TWO presidents who were impeached…

        1. greenlantern1 April 24, 2016

          One president was named Andrew Johnson.
          President Lincoln bolted, from the Republican party, to form the UNION party!
          He chose Andrew Johnson to be his VP!
          The RADICAL REPUBLICANS, their designation, impeached Lincoln’s VP!
          Proud of that?

          1. Phil Christensen April 24, 2016

            You’re so cute when you’re making up your own facts.

          2. greenlantern1 April 24, 2016

            The facts are easily documented!!
            You can either read them or listen to Rush Limbaugh!!

          3. Phil Christensen April 24, 2016

            Temporarily renaming the GOP to bring in the war democrats is hardly “bolting.” It’s late. You have school tomorrow. You should turn off mom’s computer before she hears you clacking on the keyboard.

          4. greenlantern1 April 24, 2016

            Tell the RADICAL REPUBLICANS that!!
            John Wilkes Booth was no lone assassin!
            The shooter, of President Teddy Roosevelt, was no lone gunman!

          5. Phil Christensen April 24, 2016

            Mom forgot your methylphenidate again, didn’t she?

          6. Aaron_of_Portsmouth April 25, 2016

            Phil, the “take your meds” line is stale, trite, and already archaic.

            Do you and Otto possess an ounce of creativity and inspiration?

            Besides that, you are unable to answer a basic question w/o resorting to a juvenile response. What is it that ails your psyche?

          7. Phil Christensen April 26, 2016

            See greenlantern1’s retort above. Now apologize and get over your moment of douche.

          8. greenlantern1 April 25, 2016

            Practicing medicine without a license?

          9. Phil Christensen April 26, 2016

            That was actually a good comeback.

          10. PrecipitousDrop April 25, 2016

            You’d have to pay me to listen to Rush Limbaugh. Unfortunately, there is not enough money in the whole wide world for that to happen.
            Sorry you’re being screwed, Greenlantern. I’ll bet it stings sometimes.

          11. greenlantern1 April 25, 2016

            I was screwed!
            I USED to be a REPUBLICAN!

          12. Phil Christensen April 26, 2016

            Well, that’s something you and I have in common. Can’t join with the Demtards though because they’re just a little worse.

          13. FireBaron April 25, 2016

            Andrew Johnson was a Democrat. He joined with Lincoln in a “unity party” to heal the wounds. Johnson’s impeachment was a result of the Senate believing that as they had the right to approve Presidential appointees, that only they had the right to fire them. Johnson, an unpopular president at best, was an easy target.

          14. greenlantern1 April 25, 2016

            Why did Lincoln choose him instead of a more “popular” VP?

        2. JPHALL April 24, 2016


          1. Phil Christensen April 24, 2016

            Screaming caps. This must be same tone you use when Mom comes into your room without knocking.

          2. JPHALL April 25, 2016


            Subject: Re: Comment on Sometimes, Race Is More Distraction Than Explanation

          3. Phil Christensen April 26, 2016

            Now you accuse me of serving myself! When will it end? Stop taking yourself so seriously. You’re not the endless font of wisdom you think you are.

          4. JPHALL April 26, 2016

            Nor are you. At least I can admit a lack of knowledge while you revel in your ignorance. Subject: Re: Comment on Sometimes, Race Is More Distraction Than Explanation

          5. Phil Christensen April 27, 2016

            You admitted a lack of knowledge?

          6. JPHALL April 27, 2016


            Subject: Re: Comment on Sometimes, Race Is More Distraction Than Explanation

          7. Phil Christensen April 28, 2016

            I’m “right wing?”

          8. FireBaron April 25, 2016


  2. janniefay April 24, 2016

    The government wants only, a two class society. Rich or poor. Flint is only the beginning city that congress will take out. So if you want the status quo, keep voting for the same people. Wake up America before it is to late. Stand up and take back your city.

  3. atc333 April 24, 2016

    It is not just race, either white, or black, it is all about political power which is based upon economic power, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, those in office seem to equate Blacks with a lack of that power, as proven by the actions of the Governor of the State of Michigan.

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  4. Eleanore Whitaker April 24, 2016

    Flint MI is suffering from the same greedy, selfish men of the Republican party who will steal their mother’s last crumb of bread to stuff in their own faces.

    First of all, how in the hell did that Governor NOT know that trading the treated water from the original source to the Flint River that HE had to know had NO treatment plant to treat that water?

    You know as well as anyone why he ignored and flouted ALL EPA regulations. These CON men do not want to abide by federal laws that are specifically to serve the purpose of keeping water potable and safe.

    So, these states’ rights jackasses flout EPA regulations. It was only 3 months ago, hot shot attack dog Paul Ryan and his GOP thugs tried to shut down the EPA completely. Now, you know why…they’d rather kill people than spend one dime of taxes people pay to insure safety.

    Now, ask yourselves why they do that…It’s so they have federal funds to hand to corporations who then fund their campaigns to keep them in office for life.

    Grr…..Get Rid of Republicans. We are under NO obligation to fund ANY business…and certainly not when they use our tax dollars to fund Republican campaigns.

    1. charleo1 April 24, 2016

      Exactly the same greedy, selfish Party that screws the people, then like weasel Snyder, refuses to take responsibility for the God awful mess. But instead, blames it on what he characterizes as a, “failure of government.” Like that exonerates those, namely himself, that are running, and making the decisions of government. They sit in Congress today, obstructing to dysfunction, then point and say, see, President feckless, lying. Government, incompetent, very very, bad.

      1. Eleanore Whitaker April 25, 2016

        When I watched the first hearing about this mess on CNN, the chairperson of the investigating committee…always a Republican was doing the typical “dump” job. He kept returning to the EPA as being at fault.Since I worked with environmental engineers for nearly 25 years as their tech writer and accounting manager, I processed EPA and DEP reports like TOSCA, RTK, SPPP and used the Federal Register as references for citations to fill out our clients’ environmental compliance reports.

        Snyder and the GOP will never get away with this. For one reason, water Treatment plants and water safety comes under 40CFR, Part 141, which means that ALL states must produce annual reports on their drinking water and all other potable water sources.

        Snyder had to know about the lead in the water when HE and his aides decided to switch from the Detroit water source that had a water treatment plant to the Flint River water source which has never had a water treatment plant. Is he going to make the excuse he didn’t know this?

        This guy exposed needlessly 6,000 to 12,000 children to lead in the water for NO reason other than to save Flint on the cost of water treatment which was paid prior to the change to Detroit.

        Now that Flint has put a spotlight on this kind of skullduggery of Republicans, their feigned attempts to get rid of the EPA has them threatening to succeed. Good. Who needs Republicans slashing and burning if it means our kids end up with lead poisoning.

        1. budahh April 26, 2016


          Flint, Michigan — Population in 2013: 99,763

          It’s not just about the children.

          1. Eleanore Whitaker April 28, 2016

            What is appalling is that these are the states that pride themselves on flouting the federal laws and stand on their “states” rights. When their “states” rights start to cause pollution and poison kids in other states, they can jam those states rights up their butts. Or better yet, let’s slap them with bigger fines for regulatory compliance violations.

          2. budahh April 28, 2016

            Are you aware that, before Snyder got elected, Michigan was not one of those “states rights” state? It does suffer having an off-year election for state offices. That is how the GOP completely took over the state and has passed (in spite of a voter referendum overturning it) EFM (so-called “emergency financial manager”) laws that install dictators over selected communities. So far, those communities have been predominately ‘minority’ areas (read: black).
            Snyder and his GOP thugs knew exactly what they wanted to do and following the money will clue you in.
            Re: Flint — Why are they planning to make taxpayers pay for correcting the Flint water situation? Get the necessary funds from those who profited from switching the water, via fines.

          3. Eleanore Whitaker April 29, 2016

            I had a wonderful friend who lived in Lachine MI most of her life. She passed on in 2004. What I learned from her about MI is that it was a very innovative, visionary state…it was like my own state of NJ. Some red, some blue and people who were so typically red, white and blue Americans.

            Snyder cannot lie and say he didn’t ‘know” that the water supply “HE” had to have approved for transition from the Detroit treated water to the Flint River untreated water was dangerous.

            Unwittingly, Snyder is now the icon of Republican slash and burn economics. My prediction is that now every Republican governor will answer to a higher power: The people of the entire country.

            When I watched the CNN investigation, The Republican chair of the investigation committee tried desperately to toss the blame on the EPA. They couldn’t since it is always up to the governor of a state to approve any major infrastructure or natural resources supply changes.

            They cannot hold taxpayers accountable for something their elected officials are responsible for. Snyder is a murderer. He is POing people off all across the country.

          4. budahh April 29, 2016

            Nicely said

        2. dpaano April 27, 2016

          And it’s Cruz that has said he intends to do away with the EPA if he’s elected……interesting!

          1. Eleanore Whitaker April 28, 2016

            Cruz hasn’t a prayer of being the GOP front runner. And, he knows “why” he is so hot to get rid of the EPA…the Keystone Pipeline he brokered is now causing massive pollution up there in the Bakken Oil Fields and running a 2500 mile long pipeline through the heart of states notorious for tornadoes and wildfires, which by the way, every year these states beg FEMA money from the fed for, is an inevitable disaster and Cruz knows it.

            When men care so little for human life that is already living and so much more for the unborn, these sick SOBs need to hire a shrink for their neuroses and psychoses.

      2. dpaano April 27, 2016

        Isn’t the governor of a state also considered “government?” He has no one to blame but himself and his self-picked cronies!

  5. greenlantern1 April 24, 2016

    Eisenhower was a great president!
    We have two water projects because of him.
    The first, the SAINT LAWRENCE SEAWAY, is on our northern border.
    The second, the FALCON DAM, is on our southern.
    By treaties, their water is safe!
    IKE was a Caucasian.
    Ike was a Republican.
    Nevertheless, Americans are proud of his legacy!
    We have all been warned against drinking Mexican water.
    That is NOT true of water from the FALCON DAM!

    1. FireBaron April 25, 2016

      ‘lantern, Ike was unaffiliated until 1952. The Democrats wanted him (so they wouldn’t be stuck with a candidate like Stevenson), but the Republicans got to him first, so they didn’t have to deal with Bob Taft of Ohio. And today, he would not be considered Conservative enough to even run for town council or school board. Why?
      1. He kept the higher tax rates (80 to 90%) on the top 10% earners to help pay off the WW2 War Debt
      2. He put through the largest “public works” project in US history – The Interstate Highway System – as a means of rapidly transporting US Military personnel during mobilizations without having to rely on Rail hubs.
      3. Yes, he also put through the St. Lawrence Seaway and Falcon Dam projects. However, the St. Lawrence was a joint accomplishment with Canada to improve the ability to ship products by water from the Great Lakes to the rest of the world.
      4. He warned against the “military-industrial complex”

      So Item 1 would block him because of his belief that we need to raise taxes to pay for out debts.
      Item 2 would block him as “expanding government”
      Item 3 would block him as not favoring “American Exclusionism” by daring to run joint projects with “lesser” nations.
      Item 4 would block him because where do you think the campaign funds for Republicans come from?

      1. greenlantern1 April 25, 2016

        More than that!
        He HATED Sen.McCarthy!
        So much for McCarthyism!

  6. Otto T. Goat April 24, 2016

    “To be white in America is to have been sold a bill of goods that there exists between you and people of color a gap of morality, behavior, intelligence”

    The white-black intelligence gap and morality gap are quite real.



    1. PrecipitousDrop April 25, 2016

      Plotting gross untruths on a couple of graphs DOES NOT make them any less untrue. Your ‘link’ is totally bogus. What’s odd is that I think you know it’s bogus, but you paste it up anyway.
      Thanks, Otto, for your additional example of Republican Racism.
      Now, think you can come up with some bogus sexist stats. too?

      1. Otto T. Goat April 25, 2016

        Nothing bogus about those graphs. Stop denying reality.

        1. PrecipitousDrop April 25, 2016

          If, as you say, your graph cartoons are legit, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding one or two links to support them, right? I mean such vast and alarming differences in IQ and crime rates between races is pretty explosive stuff, wouldn’t you say?

          1. Otto T. Goat April 25, 2016

            The homicide data is from the Department of Justice. The IQ data is from a large body of peer reviewed academic research.



          2. PrecipitousDrop April 25, 2016

            Thanks, Otto. I looked at your, uh, data.
            It doesn’t support the graph cartoons.
            Care to try again?

          3. Otto T. Goat April 25, 2016

            You should learn how to read.

          4. PrecipitousDrop April 25, 2016

            We do read differently.
            I read what was written.
            You seem to read what you want to see.
            Do you also have trouble with directions and instructions?

          5. Otto T. Goat April 25, 2016

            You can’t read, obviously. Are you black?

          6. PrecipitousDrop April 25, 2016

            Could be,
            You, Sir, are certainly a bigot. No doubt about it.

          7. Otto T. Goat April 25, 2016

            Now it makes sense.

          8. PrecipitousDrop April 25, 2016

            Maybe I’m not black.
            You are still a bigot.

  7. PrecipitousDrop April 24, 2016

    Mr. Pitts, Flint’s water was poisoned as a direct result of the policy of Gov. Rick Snyder’s
    Emergency Manager program. Period.
    It’s simply much, much easier to victimize poor, predominately minority populations than it is to hoodwink or poison whiter, and/or more affluent communities.

  8. Jonathan Hughes April 24, 2016

    They that think many races are distracted by Satan.

  9. dpaano April 27, 2016

    Thanks, Mr. Pitts, for a well-thought out article. It is so true! I grew up in Compton, and until we moved away from there, I didn’t know that my color was any different from that of my neighbors. Of course, I was only about 4 years old when we moved out of Compton, but I was always taught that color was only skin deep and that we’re all alike under it all. I learned also when I was sent to Anniston, Alabama, to Ft. McClellan for basic training in the Women’s Army Corps (1964) and learned how badly the African American girls were treated and not allowed to go into town when we had a chance to go. It was shocking to me to see the way people were treated……black and poor alike! I’ve since learned that my parents were right in teaching me tolerance, and I thank them for that lesson. A person’s color or their income level shouldn’t mean they are entitled to any less than any other American citizen!! Unfortunately, not all people were ever taught that in their youth and they have continued to instill this in their children! It’s very sad and disheartening to me.

  10. Robert Cruder April 27, 2016

    The consideration of economic class vs apparent race is relevant. Bernie Sanders championed members of disadvantaged economic classes regardless of race for an entire career and Hillary Clinton did so when she was with the Children’s Defense Fund.

    Hillary Clinton backed off on discussion of economic class both while her husband was President, when she was a Senator and especially when speaking to Wall Street. She espoused some race-based rhetoric when running against then-Senator Obama to counter any accusation of racism and even more now to bind herself to the outgoing President.

    Voters might conclude that Hillary Clinton favors blacks over others even when both are similarly disadvantaged in economic terms. As a white (actually Italian) voter who has observed the effects of class, I don’t understand.

    Is that a reason for blacks to favor her over Bernie Sanders? When a politician promises favoritism to any group that I am in, I have the good sense to run the other way.


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