Commentary: Truth is futile when people refuse to listen to it

The Miami HeraldMarch 22, 2011 

PITTS LEONARD 1

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

CHUCK KENNEDY — KRT

‘‘Then the lie passed into history and became truth.” — 1984 by George Orwell

This will be a futile column.

Experience dictates that it will change no minds, inspire no reconsideration among those who disagree. It will sit on the computer screen or the newspaper page taking up space, affecting nothing, until another column replaces it. It will be a useless essay, written for one reason only: to protect the writer’s mental health. If the writer did not write it, you see, there is a great danger his head would explode.

Last week, these things happened:

1) A reader named Drew wrote to dispute a contention, made in this space, that black kids are “funneled” into the criminal injustice system. I told Drew the claim is verified by simple math. For instance, in her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander reports that white kids are a third more likely to have sold drugs than black kids. But in some states, blacks account for up to 90 percent of all drug offenders in prison.

To which Drew responded, “Maybe you can find stats about drugs, but . . . ”

2) A reader named Jean wrote, “Did it ever occur to you that black men often choose the criminal path as their vocation because they see it as a get-rich-scheme that requires less work ethic . . .?” Whereupon, I made the argument again, this time citing a study co-sponsored by the Justice Department. And Jean replied, “Now how many government studies do you really believe?”

3) The Miami Herald published an editorial attacking Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s cabinet for approving a measure that will make it more difficult for non-violent felons who have served their time to regain their right to vote. Because Florida jails African Americans in disproportionate numbers, argued the editorial, the proposal has unavoidable “racial and partisan implications.”

“This,” said the editorial, “will return Florida to the Jim Crow era, when such hurdles were created to prevent blacks from voting.”

To which “OnLine,” writing on the paper’s message board, shot back, “Don’t become a felon and you need not worry.”

And perhaps you can understand why the column feels futile. OnLine, Jean and Drew would doubtless protest that they are not racist. Perish the thought. They would doubtless tell you they are simply being objective.

Which is funny, given the ease with which they bat aside objective fact. But then, that’s the state of critical thinking these days: Ignore any inconvenient truth, any unsettling information that might force you to think or even look with new eyes upon, say, the edifice of justice. Accept only those “facts” that support what you already believe.

And on this subject, what many people already believe could not be clearer: Black equals crime. We’re talking about at the mitochondrial level. We’re talking a crime strand on the DNA.

Black equals crime is a formulation as old as slave manacles and as modern as e-mail, the engine driving lynch mobs and lawmen who sold black men into slavery as late as 1945, and cops who pull black drivers over because . . . And the tragedy is not simply that many white men and women embrace this damnable lie in the face of all refutation, but that black children hear it and breathe it in like poison till it becomes part of them, till it informs how they see themselves in the world.

Some years ago, I posed a question to an audience of school kids. If a white person is murdered, what are the odds the assailant is black? Seventy-five percent? Hands — every hand in the room, it seemed — bolted into the air. Most of them belonged to black kids.

For the record, the actual number is 13.

Not that it matters. This is a futile column, remember? And when people are determined to believe a lie, there is nothing more futile than the truth.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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