Dear Rep. Robert Pittenger:
You may be the elected U.S. congressman from the district of North Carolina that runs through my neighborhood, but you don’t represent me.
When you were asked for your reaction to the citizens who took to the streets of Charlotte to protest the killings of people of color by law enforcement and plead for transparency, positive interactions and justice, I expected you to do what I, as a citizen, pay you to do: offer a nuanced take that condemned the violence but recognized that Wednesday night’s demonstration did not happen in a vacuum and was about more than one incident—the death of Keith Lamont Scott—still under investigation.
But what you said to the BBC and the world was far different from anything resembling responsible leadership. You said the protesters “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.” You did not see the diverse group of mostly peaceful demonstrators—the faith and community leaders and African-American professionals, some of your own constituents, no doubt—or hear the anguish beneath the anger.
You did focus on the actions of some who resorted to lawlessness and violence, unacceptable, to be sure, but hardly the complete picture of the events of Wednesday—or protests in the days before and since. You, Rep. Pittenger, went on to offer your version of an explanation: “We have spent trillions of dollars on welfare, and we’ve put people in bondage so they can’t be all that they are capable of being.”
I saw your apology, that you were just trying to discuss a lack of economic mobility for African Americans “because of failed policies,” which came across as the usual partisan boiler plate, placing the blame for the remarks out of your mouth elsewhere—hardly honest for you as a member of a Republican Party that purports to revere personal responsibility.
Now, everyone knows what you really think of the complicated challenges that America has always had, the contradictions between the shining promise of its founding documents and a history shot through with discrimination and violence toward people of color, people who have not only survived but thrived, leaving their all-American blood in the soil and becoming, yes, successful against the odds.
Count among them my ancestors and family members, some of whom participated in civil rights demonstrations of another era and continue to work toward equality for all.
Did you know that on the Charlotte street I live on, black citizens, no matter how successful, were legally prevented from moving in until the latter half of the 20th century? There is a reason why an integrated Charlotte is still segregated in many ways and why the prosperity of this New South city is not shared among all—and it’s not envy or hatred.
Were you asleep in history class or out sick that day? If so, I have a suggestion. Visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture—quite close to where you work—for me. Did you miss the inspiring opening celebration Saturday? (Because my attention was drawn to events at home, I missed it, but watched with interest and pride.) You would discover how America would not be America without the crucial contributions of African Americans.
It is your history, too, Congressman.
You would also learn, by viewing an actual slave ship and artifacts, quite a different definition of the word “bondage” you so freely throw about.
Ask your colleague in the House of Representatives, Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, about his heroic role in that history—marches, activism and being beaten unconscious just for advocating for the right of all citizens to vote. At the opening, he said: “As these doors open, it is my hope that each and every person who visits this beautiful museum will walk away deeply inspired, filled with a greater respect for the dignity and the worth of every human being and a stronger commitment to the ideals of justice, equality and true democracy.”
If you need lessons in proper comportment, watch the dignified response of President Barack Obama—who rose without name and privilege to the highest office—to disrespect from you and Donald Trump, the candidate you support.
As the museum opened, he spoke to all when he said: “As Americans, we rightfully passed on the tales of the giants who built this country; who led armies into battle and waged seminal debates in the halls of Congress and the corridors of power. But too often, we ignored or forgot the stories of millions upon millions of others, who built this nation just as surely, whose humble eloquence, whose calloused hands, whose steady drive helped to create cities, erect industries, build the arsenals of democracy.”
The president acknowledged that one museum “won't eliminate gun violence from all our neighborhoods, or immediately ensure that justice is always color-blind.” But he affirmed the rightful place of all when he summed up the museum’s message: “We're not a burden on America, or a stain on America, or an object of pity or charity for America. We're America.”
Republican President George W. Bush, who authorized legislation to establish the museum back when its cause was bipartisan, was there with former first lady Laura Bush, a key figure in the museum’s construction. Bush said the museum shows America’s “commitment to truth. A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”
Rep. Pittenger, I know you in the way journalists know the politicians they cover. I’ve visited your office and met your wife. You’ve even asked for my vote. The last time we met was in the airport as we headed back from Washington, where we both travel for work.
I am sure you will be there for a while. In my carefully drawn congressional district, a rutabaga with an “R” after its name could beat any Democratic challenger—even, I suspect, Jesus Christ himself. (And that makes me wonder about all of my well-heeled neighbors for whom your racist statements are inconvenient but no deal breaker.)
Despite the long wait for free tickets, as a congressman, I’m sure you could swing a private tour of the Smithsonian’s newest edition. If not, just ask this successful African-American constituent. I’m sure I can work something out.
Mary C. Curtis
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.