Is Bill O’Reilly a racist?

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?

25 replies »

  1. Can somebody please get me on the O’reilly show so I can confirm som of his comments? Or Don Imus? The black on black discrimination here needs to be aired out in public.

  2. Pingback: Is Bill O
  3. Sam, I enjoyed your commentary as your perceptive on this subject was quite edifying. Perhaps Bill O’Reilly is blissfully ignorant to his true personality by choice. However, I’m thinking your article could better serve us all if O’Reilly was enlighten by its content. Then again, the significance would probably escape him.

  4. “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?”

    It’s hard to get someone whose livelihood depends on making a spectacle of themselves to stop being outrageous.

    Beyond that, yes, there’s a wealth of evidence that Bill O’Reallllly has racist tendencies. The sad thing is that he’s representative of the MSM.

  5. Excellent analysis of Billo’s “foot in mouth” syndrome. I think part of his problem is that he has to fill 3 hours of radio and one hour of TV every day… and he has very little to say. So he starts trying to free-associate and ramble about himself, rather than making his point and moving on.
    The Sylvia’s episode is a perfect example. He is dining with Rev. Al Sharpton in the middle of the Jena 6 controversy and I am sure people, even his older, whiter demographic, would be interested in the dinner conversation. Instead, we got his take on how “normal” things are in Harlem. And how surprised he is by that.
    Billo isn’t overtly racist, he is just ignorant about anything outside of his narrow world and he is oblivious to that ignorance. His use of terms like “homey” to show he can “fit in” with black culture are ham-handed, but in his mind it shows that his assault on rap music or the hip hop culture are the observations of “an insider.” As an American of Irish decent, I’m stunned by his attempts to equate Irish immigration during the potato famine to the black slave trade. But in Billo’s mind, it’s his way of saying he has the same cultural heritage as the blacks he is about to criticize.
    It is like when someone leads off an overtly racist attack with “I’m no racist but…”. But Billo’s way it fills more air time and lets Billo talk about something he is interested in; himself.

  6. Yes, Bill O’Reilly is racist and along with his racism, comes his ignorance.

    O’Reilly who is older and should know better! In fact racially profiles cultures.

    If you really listen to him he really does not know much about anything, he just shoots off his yapper and adds his flair of hatred to his verbal stupidity.

    Great article.

  7. Sir,

    Your essay is clearly stated, thoughfull and just a brillant coverage of the issue. I was blown away. Who are your and, more importantly, why aren’t you on Huffington Post?

  8. Chrystal: I don’t think I can help Papa Bear, and even if I could I don’t think he imagines that he needs help. But maybe understanding him a little better will help the rest of us, huh?

    Jeff: Many thanks. As always, glad to have you reading. And here, as happens a lot of times when I’m talking about the “conservative” side of things, I often pause and consider what your reaction will be. It helps.

    modchen: Nice – thanks for that chart.

    DomPierre: As I say, racism is ignorance, so ignorance doesn’t get you a not guilty vote.

    The Chief: Good point about having that three hours to fill. I’m still waiting for proof that the 24-hr news cycle has made us smarter.

    blueollie: Yup. But he’s paid well and worshipped my millions, huh?

    yesbillOisracist: And it goes beyond just race, as you note. I’m still looking for the subject that he ISN’T ignorant about.

    William Tomlin: HuffPo? Not sure they need me. But I look at my colleagues here at S&R with a good measure of pride – HuffPo is bigger, but we’re pretty good ourselves. 🙂

    Thanks for stopping by – we can always use intelligent readers and commenters.

  9. Remember how O’Reilly almost voted for Kerry? As I sometimes said to my father, who was a staunch O’Reilly man, I wasn’t convinced he was truly as hard right as he makes out. Not like true believers Hannity, Limbaugh and Coulter.

    O’Reilly, I always thought, was more of a hard-right persona than a hard-right person.

    But Sam’s collection of quotes has me rethinking my position.

    Few are aware that O’Reilly has three masters degrees including one from Harvard’s prestigious John F. Kennedy School of Government.

    Thus he has no excuse for how much of a racist know-nothing he may be.

  10. I remembered what’s wrong with O’Reilly — his brain is fuzzy from too much phone sex dissipating his vital fluids into a loofah.

  11. good job. But, I have to defend O’Reilly on one point. The Irish/Scots/British underclass WERE sent to the Americas in chains. The mortality rate for indentureds was significantly higher than for Africans. Eventually states’ legislatures had to pass laws proscribing mortal beatings of Irish “workers”. Simple fact, they were much cheaper chattel, thus not worth as much to their landed owners as were African slaves.

  12. A well put together review of O’Reilly’s current controversy.

    I think there is a more important point that is fundamental to the damage his messaging does and you touch on it nicely in your conclusion. He is an important messenger to a significant slice of the U.S. population and both he and his audience (I know many of them and they’re not stupid) genuinely believe O’Reilly is “Looking out for them,” and that he is their “Cultural Warrior” in a dangerously decaying society. These people look to him for genuine guidance in how to perceive, understand and respond to current issues in the world.

    I don’t see the issue as – is he racist or not. I see the issue is that when a social commenter/opinionist realizes the foundation for their condemnation of something has been based on a broad misperception, are they able to say that their previous condemnation/opinions were therefore invalid? And to go back and correct and revise for their audience?
    i.e. – “I Bill O’Reilly don’t know much of anything valuable about African Americans. Please disregard anything I’ve previously said and may say in the future about them or their culture.”

    No. What he’ll do now is use a visit to a semi-gentrified soul food restaurant in Harlem as evidence that he’s truly an expert on black society and culture.

    Furthermore, intellectual honesty would require him to examine if he has exercised similar flawed logic in excoriating other groups and individuals. In O’Reilly’s case, this would require a monumental cathartic effort, as a heart so “full of incoherent rage” will have to break in order to release the guiding mechanism of bigotry.

    I can see how he would believe his radio remarks Sylvia’s are actually complementary to blacks, and possibly even self-effacing to some degree. But that he could abstract the real lesson represented in this event – judge not people while ignorant of any first hand knowledge of the individual – would require a great amount of spiritual fortitude. And it would completely and totally disempower the Bill O’Reilly we all know from his soapbox.

    I harbor elements of racism and prejudice. As a white man growing up in the south it’s about impossible not to. Sometimes it becomes dormant for so long that I forget about and, in the past, once even believed it was gone. It sneaks up every now and then and reminds me that it isn’t. The point is, I’m not ashamed of it because I didn’t put it there. I live with it to the satisfaction that it doesn’t control my intellectual perceptions and judgements of the individual. I can even access it and use it to enhance and communicate my opinions about race, as I’ve done a little hear.

    Bill O’Reilly doesn’t have that window on himself (same with his sexual harassment of an employee while preaching morality to his audience) and therefore ought to shut up about black society and culture. Problem is also – he’s the tool of a system that rewards him handsomely for exactly this kind of thing: not shutting up.

    To me, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being racist (jealous, envious, sexist, nationalist, angry…), otherwise we’d have to say there’s something inherently wrong with 99.9% of humanity. it’s how we manage or express the “ist” when it threatens to emerge and damage ourself and others.

    A side note and personal anecdote:
    In my late 20’s I lived and worked a short while with a group of people in South Boston. That neighborhood is populated by Irish American blue collar immigrants and let me tell you something, they showed this Southerner a segment of white on black racial hatred that shocked me. Impossible, me thinks, O’Reilly didn’t grow up with something similar.

  13. “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.”

    Very true! When talking about problems in society it is amazing how quickly certain shallow thinking individuals are in labelling someone as racist/sexist/feminist.

    Great article. Ignorance, fear, hate, pre-judging all precursors to racist thinking.

    I think late in life Bill O is finding out that he was the one who bought all the negativity (from his Grandmother no doubt and bad TV).

    …and he SO FANCIES himself. Give me Denzyl any day of the week.

  14. Elaine,

    I prefer to use “The Animal House” strategy.

    “But you can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg – isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America. Gentlemen!” —Otter, Animal House

    Works everytime. And good for a ;).

  15. sweetgumroot, on September 28th, 2007 at 1:45 pm Said:

    I harbor elements of racism and prejudice. As a white man growing up in the south it

  16. I expected a diatribe. I found an analysis; well-written, of course, but also critically sound and broad-minded in the best sense of the term.

    “I want to make sure that I

  17. Thanks for the kind words. Actually, I’ve discovered that if people think it’s an entertaining diatribe you get more hits… 🙂

    When it turns out to be thoughtful they probably feel cheated, huh?

  18. I can’t stand Bill O’Reilly or his politics. Let me reiterate: I despise Bill O’Reilly. That being said, I checked the original transcripts of his remarks, and he was clearly being facetious. Perpetuating this myth is like perpetuating the myth that Al Gore seriously claimed or implied that he invented the internet. False is false. Time magazine and The Today Show were among the media outlets that went to the trouble to correct this story. Here’s the Time link: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1666573,00.html