No, this isn’t a rhetorical question. And it’s not one I pose lightly, either. But since Bill seems to want us to ask it, let’s review the evidence.
In case you missed it, O’Reilly stirred it up again recently by commenting on his dinner at a black-owned restaurant in NY called Sylvia’s.
After eating dinner at a famed Harlem restaurant recently, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly told a radio audience he “couldn’t get over the fact” that there was no difference between the black-run Sylvia’s and other restaurants.
“It was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun,” he said. “And there wasn’t any kind of craziness at all.” O’Reilly said his fellow patrons were tremendously respectful as he ate dinner with civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
“That’s right,” O’Reilly said. “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M.F.-er, I want more iced tea.” Sharpton said he was taken aback that anyone would be surprised at how blacks acted at Sylvia’s and will ask O’Reilly on “The O’Reilly Factor” Wednesday to explain what he meant. Nothing O’Reilly said at the dinner was offensive, said Sharpton spokeswoman Rachel Noerdlinger.
In essence, O’Reilly was stunned that blacks could go out in public and act civilized, it seems. Of course, there seems to have been an attempt to frame these remarks as pro-black, not anti.
O’Reilly pointed to the lack of difference between Sylvia’s and other restaurants as a marker of racial progress. He also noted that he went to an Anita Baker concert recently where the audience was evenly mixed between blacks and whites.”
The band was excellent, but they were dressed in tuxedoes, and this is what white America doesn’t know, particularly people who don’t have a lot of interaction with black Americans,” he said.
“They think the culture is dominated by Twista, Ludacris and Snoop Dogg.” Williams concurred that too many people believe there’s little else in black culture beyond profane rap.
Without defending Papa Bear, there is a smattering of truth in this – there are probably places in “white America” that think all black culture looks like a bad rap video, and in these spots the idea that the colored folk dress up and go to nice restaurants where they actually eat with utensils instead of their feet would come as news. No doubt O’Reilly is providing a service on this front, because FOX is likely the “news” station of choice in most of those homes.
This isn’t O’Reilly’s first foray into race-related “he said what?! territory, of course. For example:
- “In April 2003, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly hosted a fundraiser for Best Friends, a charity benefiting inner-city schoolchildren. As reported in the Washington Post (4/15/03), O’Reilly was trying to fill the time before a singing group connected with the charity, called the Best Men, was set to perform, and quipped: ‘Does anyone know where the Best Men are? I hope they’re not in the parking lot stealing our hubcaps.’” (Fair.org)
- “Searching for a word to describe someone who assists immigrants crossing the border, O’Reilly came up with ‘wetback’ (2/6/03). The incident was explained away by Fox officials as an unfortunate gaffe (New York Times, 2/10/03), but the Allentown, Pa. Morning Call (1/5/03) had O’Reilly using the same racist term in a speech earlier in the year: ‘O’Reilly criticized the Immigration and Naturalization Service for not doing its job and not keeping out ‘the wetbacks.”” O’Reilly denied making the comment (Washington Post, 2/17/02), but the reporter stands by his account.” (Fair.org)
- “In support of his proposal to militarize U.S. borders, O’Reilly remarked, ‘We’d save lives because Mexican wetbacks, whatever you want to call them, the coyotes–they’re not going to do what they’re doing now, all right, so people aren’t going to die in the desert.’” (Fair.org)
- “During a segment (2/9/00) about black athletes suing over the minimum academic standards for college admission, O’Reilly commented: ‘Look, you know as well as I do most of these kids come out and they can’t speak English.’” (Fair.org)
- “‘Will African-Americans break away from the pack thinking and reject immorality–because that’s the reason the family’s breaking apart–alcohol, drugs, infidelity. You have to reject that, and it doesn’t seem–and I’m broadly speaking here, but a lot of African-Americans won’t reject it.’” (Fair.org)
- “On the April 12, 2006, Radio Factor, O’Reilly claimed that on the previous day’s broadcast, guest Charles Barron, a New York City councilman, had revealed the ‘hidden agenda’ behind the current immigration debate, which, O’Reilly said, was ‘to wipe out `white privilege` and to have the browning of America.’ O’Reilly suggested that this ‘hidden agenda’ included plans to let ‘people who live in the Caribbean, people who live in Africa and Asia … walk in and become citizens immediately.’” (MediaMatters)
- “In a February 27, 2006, conversation with a radio caller about the disproportionately few jobs and contracts that have gone to locals in the rebuilding of New Orleans, O’Reilly said: ‘[T]he homies, you know … I mean, they’re just not going to get the job.’” (MediaMatters)
- In responding to a contributor noting that by mid-century the US would no longer be predominately white, O’Reilly responded: “Yeah, but by then we’ll all be dead. Thank God!!” (Daily Kos)
And then there’s my personal favorite:
But do you understand what the New York Times wants, and the far-left want? They want to break down the white, Christian, male power structure, which you’re a part, and so am I, and they want to bring in millions of foreign nationals to basically break down the structure that we have. In that regard, Pat Buchanan is right. So I say you’ve got to cap with a number.
Even when O’Reilly is talking about race in ways that perhaps aren’t quite as appalling, he does so … inelegantly. For instance:
- “On the March 30, 2006, broadcast of his syndicated radio show, Bill O’Reilly stated that ‘the mainstream African-American person’ is ‘conservative at heart.’ O’Reilly defined such a person as ‘the person who goes to work, gets up, doesn’t live in the ghetto, lives in a, you know, in a working class neighborhood or an affluent neighborhood.’” (MediaMatters) (If you’re wondering how the guy who made the remarks about Sylvia’s can be such an expert on “mainstream” black culture, well, I agree – it is a puzzler.)
- “On the October 19, 2004, broadcast of The Radio Factor, O’Reilly attempted to explain a Washington Post poll, which he said showed less support for President Bush among African-Americans than two other polls, by noting that the poll is ‘coming out of a very heavily black district where there is an enormous amount of poverty in Washington.’” (MediaMatters)
The odd thing is that, as bad as I despise O’Reilly and as bad as I think he is for the culture, there are actually moments where I think, in his own twisted way, he feels like he’s trying to seriously address race issues. Like here:
On the October 4, 2005, edition of his radio show, O’Reilly equated trans-Atlantic Irish immigration in the 19th century to the historical enslavement of African-Americans and their forced removal from Africa. The Irish coming to the United States “had to leave the country, just as Africans had to leave — African-Americans had to leave Africa and come over on a boat and try to make in the New World with nothing,” O’Reilly said.
No, it’s not the same. Duh. But is he maybe trying to give blacks credit for how much they had to overcome? Again, not defending him, but every once in awhile he seems to be … trying? Badly, to be sure, but as ignorant as his remarks about his recent visit to a nice Harlem restaurant are, they’re clearly not in the same category as much of the poison he spews.
Here’s another case:
“We have black leaders in this country who blame everything on whitey, everything’s the system’s fault, and that gives a built-in excuse to fail and act irresponsible. ‘Oh, I can’t get a job. Whitey won’t let me,’ or ‘I can’t get educated. The teachers are bad, so I’m going to go out and get high and sell drugs. That’s the only way we can make money here.’ You know what I mean? And it’s a vicious cycle.”
If you scrape away the self-righteousness and belligerence, there lurks underneath this rant an actual shred of an issue, one that prominent African-American leaders have themselves addressed. He’s presenting in a way that’s too broad and cartoonish to spur a real intelligent conversation, of course, but we’re probably not too off-base if we note that there are at least subtleties in the Bill O’Reilly Book of Race Relations.
So back to the original question: is Bill O’Reilly a racist?
We live in a society where racism and other forms of discrimination are disturbingly real and widespread. Unfortunately, our failure to eradicate these prejudices has left us in a world where accusations of bias are also widespread – and sometimes unwarranted.
So I always try and tread lightly when it comes to slapping labels on people, because I know how powerful they can be and how absolutely effective they can be at squelching real debate on vital issues. I’ve had ideologues try and brand me with an “-ist” or two because I had the audacity to ask a couple questions about points of dogma that seemed out of line with the facts, so I want to make sure that I’m never guilty of taking the easy and uncritical shortcut that a label provides. I’d like to be about starting conversations, not shutting them down.
Racism always has ignorance at its core. If there is an informed racism argument out there I have not yet encountered it. However, it is also true that some racism is merely ignorant while other strains are virulently hateful. Put another way, there is no good racism or racism that we should accept or tolerate, but that doesn’t mean that some forms aren’t less overtly harmful than others. I realize that many smart, well-educated and good people are going to disagree with me here, arguing for a broad systemic view that notes the damage even “innocent” racism can cause, and I respect that argument and those who make it. It’s intelligent and offered in good faith, and my only response is that nothing I’m saying here should be construed as excusing people just because they’re not actively persecuting minorities. I’m merely pointing to the individual phenomenon and noting that racism manifests differently from person to person.
I do not know what’s in Bill O’Reilly’s heart (although I imagine it’s far fuller of incoherent rage than is healthy). But I, like you, have before me a record that I can consider and from which I can draw conclusions.
It seems, at the very least, that we have to acknowledge how woefully inadequate his understanding of blacks and African-American culture really is. We can’t help being appalled that a man who knows so little is given such a large forum to speak on issues about which he knows so little.
And really, is there any excuse at all why a man with his resources should remain ignorant on a subject he clearly cares so much about?