Minority columnists won't be silenced by bigoted threats

The threats against McClatchy Newspapers columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. should cause people to ponder something that virtually no one talks about. There are a lot of people in this country who don't simply dislike columnists of color but want their removal from the mainstream.

Many columnists of color - myself included - learn quickly to develop a thick skin. A lot of our critics are seldom critical about what is written. Rather they seem angry that we are provided a forum, period. Columnists of color, particularly those who write from the point of view of their culture, often elicit this kind of response.

You get used to it.

Ever since the days of newspaper editor Ida B. Wells, whose printing press was firebombed by an angry white mob in 1892 because of her anti-lynching message, hatemongers have resorted to smear campaigns and threats.

Pitts is just one of many who have seen this.

In 2001, a black student reporter for Penn State's student newspaper, The Collegian, received a typed death threat that also threatened the leader of Penn State's black caucus. It read: "This is a white academy in a white town - in a white country, and by God it's going to stay that way."

This raised tensions on campus, especially after a body of a young black man was discovered in a wooded area of Centre County, where the death threat indicated there would be one found.

With immigration now one of the major issues of the day, Hispanic columnists and reporters have also become targets of threats by anti-immigration groups and individual bigots.

During a stop at the Freedom Ride in October 2003, a white supremacist organized a counter-rally in Jersey City, N.J. On his Web site, he had threatened a Hispanic reporter, Michelle Garcia, who was covering him, and made racial slurs, writing on his site, "If this racist b---- shows up at our counter-rally, I'll be sure to point her out so that she can experience the full brunt of our displeasure." Fortunately, there was no incident.

More often than not, many of these columnists of color feel they are on their own.

Although the person responsible for the threats against Pitts has not been charged with a crime, Pitts is taking his recent attacks in stride. "Apparently, I have managed to make enemies of haters, bigots and other low, pathetic men," he wrote. "I must be doing something right."

He did.

His June 3 column that began the recent threats was about how white supremacists used the torture and murder of a white couple in Knoxville, Tenn., allegedly by four blacks, to further a racist campaign about how black crime goes underreported and how this should be regarded as a hate crime. Even though the crime happened in January, the fervor culminated into a Memorial Day rally in Knoxville.

But America's historic problems with race relations have been something many in this society have tried to avoid dealing with, thinking that if we do not bring up those concerns, there will not be any.

Many of those who are responsible for racial tensions - take for instance, Don Imus - are usually ignored until columnists from the communities they attack speak up. Holding them to account disrupts their isolated reign of power.

It is important that the perspectives from columnists of color are presented if we are going to further ourselves in a civil society.

Daryle Lamont Jenkins is a writer in Philadelphia and a member of One People's Project, a group that monitors racist groups and individuals. Readers may write to the author at: Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wis. 53703.