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Colby College To Honor Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr.

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Cheryl Diaz Meyer/McClatchy
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Courtesy photo
Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald, is being honored Tuesday night by Colby College with its Lovejoy Award for Courage in Journalism.

Pitts, who's Black, told Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz he finds writing columns about national affairs and race both satisfying and frustrating.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Pitts: It's satisfying in the sense that you get to have a voice in the ongoing national discussion. There have been times times when things were going — very recent times — when things were going on in this country that were so absolutely insane, that I felt that if I didn't have a chance to say something and be heard by large amounts of human beings that my head would pop off of my shoulders and go flying around the room, like a balloon when the air escapes.

It's frustrating when you find yourself making having to make the same argument year after year. There's a very great sense that either you're not being heard of the world's not changing fast enough to suit you. I don't know which, but we seem to be sort of stuck in a rut.

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Listen to Irwin's full interview with Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Gratz: You and I were actually born the same year, as it turns out, 1957. In our lifetime, the nation enacted historic civil rights legislation, elected a black man president, now a black woman vice president. But in that same time, we've watched the Supreme Court weaken affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act, we've seen laws passed that led to mass incarceration of Blacks. Do you think the country is making any progress on race relations? Or are we just kind of squeezing the bag of sand moving the issue from one realm to the other?

I think America is doing what America has done with regard to African Americans and race for all of the almost 250 years now, I guess, that we've been a country. And that is, it's always been this pattern of two steps forward, one step back. And I think we're definitely in the one step back phase now.

Certainly, if I'm going to be an African American, which I'm going to be, I prefer to live in this era than in say, 1957. Certainly, you know, my advantages, my opportunities, my chances for advancement are much greater now than they would have been. You and I wouldn't have been having this discussion in 1957, quite likely. It would have been possible, but a lot less likely. So it's a mistake to say that nothing has changed.

But by the same token — and this speaks to the frustration I was talking about a moment ago — it's really galling and appalling that 55 years after John Lewis and all those people marched across the Pettus Bridge and LBJ enshrined voting rights for African Americans in the law, to have to watch states like Georgia attempt to strip voting rights from African Americans, again, using some variation of the same tricks that they've been using since Reconstruction. It's as if we were engaged in this constant ongoing effort to repeal the last half of the 20th century.

Do you have any suggestions for how we get back to moving forward? In a lot of cases also, we talk nowadays about institutional racism, the everyday choices of zoning and hiring that still work against Blacks, even though that may not be the conscious intent of the people who implement those things.

I think it's incumbent upon all of us to realize that we are all incubators of unconscious bias. Everyone, when you talk about bias, when you talk about racism, everyone wants to declare, 'My hands are clean, I'm not, you know, I've got a black best friend. I listen to Beyonce, I do all of the right things. I'm a member of the NAACP.' And all that's lovely, but that doesn't mean that you can't be a perpetrator or, at the very minimum a beneficiary, of these unconscious biases.

And if we're striving to be what Dr. King called a Beloved Community, one of the things that requires is that I have to want for you the best, the same as I want from me. And if in your unconscious biases, you're failing to live up to that, then there's work to do. And this is not just white to Black, this is man to woman, this is straight to gay, this is in all sorts of ways.

As I've been telling people for the last few years after the #MeToo movement exploded, what that taught me is I have been blind to what women have to deal with in their lives. Either they haven't been saying or, more likely, I haven't been paying as much attention. As a man who likes to think of himself as enlightened, I should not have been as surprised at some some things as I should have. And I think the same thing exists, obviously, with regard to race.

So many people were surprised at the George Floyd killing. I was appalled, but I'm not the least bit surprised and, frankly, the sad statement of truth is that whether or not copious amounts of cellphone footage existed, there would still be a healthy amount of denial. People would still be saying, 'Well, he must have done something to deserve it.' So there we are.

When all is said and done, do you consider yourself hopeful, an optimist, a pessimist, frustrated?

Depends on which hour of the day you ask me the question. Which day and which hour of the day? Because I can make the case for both. I have been saying for the last few years that this country is in a lot more trouble than many of us are willing to acknowledge. I can very easily foresee a shattering of this country if we continue on the path that we're on, because we're on a self-destructive path. And the frustrating thing about that is that if this country shattered — this country that survived Hitler, this country that survived the Cold War, this country that survived Russia and all of this stuff — if the shattering comes it will be because we chose it. And that just frustrates the heck out of me. So yeah, that's the pessimistic part of me.

The optimistic part or the hopeful part realizes that we are a nation that was built for change, that it's in our DNA, it's in our founding documents. We're a nation that's built for change. And if we ever let go of the fear which animates so much of the responses to everything you see going on and embrace the change and find ways to manage the change such that it benefits all of us, then we can fulfill our hoped-for destiny. Then we can be that great nation, that shining the city on a hill that Reagan liked to speak of. We can be all of those things, but we can't be it while still trying to litigate the past.