Leonard Pitts Jr

Oct. 20, 2003: To irate readers: Race has always benefited whites

I guess I touched a nerve.

That much seems apparent from the dozens of responses to my recent column about a hospital inAbington, Pa., where a white man asked that no black doctors or nurses be allowed to assist in thedelivery of his child. The hospital agreed, a decision I lambasted. Which has produced the aforementioned dozens of critical e-mails. The tone varies fromspittle-spewing bigotry to sweet reason, but they all make the same point: that affirmative actionentitles white people to question black people's competence.

As a reader who chose to remain nameless put it, many people wonder if a given black professional"is there because of his/her skills and abilities, or because of affirmative action. Unfortunately,affirmative action policies leave many unanswered questions about a black person's education andtraining, as well as skills and abilities. . . . How do we answer these questions?"

I will try my best to answer them with a straight face. It's going to be difficult.

Because there's an elephant in this room, isn't there? It's huge and noisy and rather smelly, yetnone of these good people sees it. The elephant is this simple fact:

White men are the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action this country has ever seen.

That's not rhetoric or metaphor. It's only truth.


If affirmative action is defined as giving someone an extra boost based on race, it's hard to seehow anyone can argue the point. Slots for academic admission, for employment and promotion, for bankloans and for public office have routinely been set aside for white men. This has always been thenation's custom. Until the 1960s, it was also the nation's law.

So if we want to talk about achievements being tainted by racial preference, it seems onlylogical to start there. After all, every worthwhile thing African Americans achieved prior to themid-'60s - Berry Gordy's record label, John Johnson's publishing company, Alain Leroy Locke's Rhodesscholarship, Madame C.J. Walker's hair care empire, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams' pioneering heartsurgery - was done, not just without racial preference, but against a backdrop of open racialhostility.

By contrast, nothing white men have ever achieved in this country was done without racial andgender preferences. Affirmative action.

I know that will be hard for some folks to hear. I know it will leave some white brothersindignant. And I expect many recitations of "up by my bootstraps" and "know what it's like to bepoor." We all want to feel that we made it on our own merits, and it's not my intention to diminishthe combination of pluck, luck, hard work and ability that typically distinguishes success, whetherwhite, black or magenta.

On the other hand, there's a word for those who believe race is not a significant factor in whitesuccess: delusional.


It is not coincidence, happenstance or evidence of their intellectual, physical or moralsuperiority that white guys dominate virtually every field of endeavor worth dominating. It is,rather, a sign that the proverbial playing field is not level and never has been.

My correspondents feel they should not be asked to respect the skill or abilities of a blackprofessional who may or may not have benefited from affirmative action. They think such a personshould expect to be looked down upon. But black people have spent generations watching white men whowere no more talented, and many times downright incompetent, vault to the head of the line based onracial preference.

So, here's my question:

Would African Americans be justified in looking down on white professionals? In wondering whetherthey are really smart enough to do the job? In questioning their competence before they had done athing?

Yeah, you're right. That would take one hell of a nerve.