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Leonard Pitts Jr.: Sen. Bill Cassidy still doesn't know what hit him

In a few poorly considered words, the senator managed to otherize women he says he means to support.

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Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C, on May 11, 2021.
Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/Getty Images/TNS
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Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy still doesn't know what hit him.

That's the only logical conclusion following a Sunday tweet in which he responded to the political firestorm he ignited last week. For those who missed it, it came when an interviewer from Politico asked about his state's high rates of women dying in childbirth.

"About a third of our population is African American," he replied. "African Americans have a higher incidence of maternal mortality. So, if you correct our population for race, we're not as much of an outlier as it'd otherwise appear. Now, I say that not to minimize the issue but to focus the issue as to where it would be."

It was a response that -- quite predictably, to be frank -- made some people furious. Mediaite called it "jaw-dropping." Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman pronounced herself "disappointed," "angry" and "horrified," but "not surprised." Rep. Gwen Moore accused him of "sickening" indifference.

In response, Cassidy took to Twitter and promptly proved he had no real idea what he was being criticized for. People, he complained, were "cutting off & misquoting my statement . . . to create a malicious & fake narrative." He defended his response in the interview, pointing out that he touted "my work to address racial bias in healthcare and address high maternal mortality among African American moms."

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Which is fair. Indeed, Cassidy went on to tell Politico about a bill he's sponsored that would enable mothers who can't get to their regular pregnancy checkups to monitor themselves at home and another, signed into law in March, that will fund research into racially based health disparities. And if the only thing the outrage stemmed from was the idea that he doesn't care about Black moms, he'd now have his critics checkmated.

But the charges against him are more nuanced. The heart of the complaint lies in this sentence: "If you correct our population for race, we're not as much of an outlier as it would otherwise appear."

Let's take the first half first. In statistics, to "correct for" means to account for some minor or extraneous variance that would otherwise distort the results. But if a third of your population is Black, there's nothing minor or extraneous about it. They don't distort the results. They pretty much are the results. So it's insulting for Cassidy to carve out some statistical workaround that excludes them in order to prettify the numbers.

Which brings us to, ". . . we're not as much of an outlier as it would otherwise appear." It begs the question: Who is this "we" he's talking about? You might think he means all the good people of Louisiana -- except, he doesn't. He can't. If a third of the state is Black, and their maternal mortality rates are through the roof, then it follows they can't also be part of a "we" who aren't doing so badly. In other words, not part of the state as a whole.

One thinks of Sen. Mitch McConnell, drawing a distinction between "African-American voters" and "Americans." Or of NBC's Chuck Todd differentiating "parents" from "parents of color." Language -- spoken language especially -- has a way of making naked the implicit biases and unspoken assumptions of its users. That's what happened here.

In a few poorly considered words, Cassidy managed to otherize women he says he means to support. Small wonder race is frequently an argument, but seldom a conversation. What's most frustrating here, you see, is not that the senator gave offense.

It's that he has no idea why.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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©2021 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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