The O’Reilly race factor

I haven’t been particularly gentle to Bill O’Reilly before. While his “common man talking common sense” persona was once refreshing at times, and his refusal to toe any party line was a welcome contrast to his ideologically sturdier Fox News colleagues like Sean Hannity, his grandiosity, paranoia, and growing tendency to demonize opponents and disparage secular values have turned the culture warrior extraordinaire into self-parody. That said, I think his latest roasting by his longtime nemesis Media Matters over allegedly racist remarks about a black-owned restaurant in New York, and the ensuing brouahaha which has turned into a fairly big news story (it was on the front page of the Washington Post entertainment section yesterday), is seriously unfair.

According to the Media Matters spin, in a September 19 discussion on his radio show, O’Reilly was “surprised” to find no difference between Sylvia’s, a famous black-owned restaurant in Harlem, and other New York restaurants, and even noted the fact that “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-Fer, I want more iced tea.’ ” Other coverage has been along the same lines: “Bill O’Reilly Is Shocked That Not All Blacks Are Animals,” “Bill O’Reilly Shocked that Sylvia’s Harlem Restaurant is Normal,” and so on.

However, if you listen to the clip and read the transcript in the Media Matters post, they don’t really support that interpretation. True, O’Reilly’s choice of words — “I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City” — was somewhat infelicitous. But in the context of the entire segment, it was not an expression of shock on O’Reilly’s part so much as an expression of being struck by the contrast between this normality and the image of African-Americans in the media. The “M-Fer, I want more iced tea” remark was a reference to the image of blacks and black behavior perpetuated in the hip-hop culture.

In fact, O’Reilly opened his comments with a sympathetic discussion of the racism blacks still face:

Black people in this country understand that they’ve had a very, very tough go of it, and some of them can get past that, and some of them cannot. I don’t think there’s a black American who hasn’t had a personal insult that they’ve had to deal with because of the color of their skin. I don’t think there’s one in the country. So you’ve got to accept that as being the truth. People deal with that stuff in a variety of ways. Some get bitter. Some say, [unintelligible] “You call me that, I’m gonna be more successful.” OK, it depends on the personality.

So it’s there. It’s there, and I think it’s getting better. I think black Americans are starting to think more and more for themselves. They’re getting away from the Sharptons and the Jacksons and the people trying to lead them into a race-based culture. They’re just trying to figure it out: “Look, I can make it. If I work hard and get educated, I can make it.”

You know, I was up in Harlem a few weeks ago, and I actually had dinner with Al Sharpton, who is a very, very interesting guy. And he comes on The Factor a lot, and then I treated him to dinner, because he’s made himself available to us, and I felt that I wanted to take him up there. And we went to Sylvia’s, a very famous restaurant in Harlem. I had a great time, and all the people up there are tremendously respectful. They all watch The Factor. You know, when Sharpton and I walked in, it was like a big commotion and everything, but everybody was very nice.

And I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks, primarily black patronship. It was the same, and that’s really what this society’s all about now here in the U.S.A. There’s no difference. There’s no difference. There may be a cultural entertainment — people may gravitate toward different cultural entertainment, but you go down to Little Italy, and you’re gonna have that. It has nothing to do with the color of anybody’s skin.

Later on, his guest, journalist Juan Williams, brought up the issue of gangsta rap, and the discussion continued as follows:

O’REILLY: You know, and I went to the concert by Anita Baker at Radio City Music Hall, and the crowd was 50/50, black/white, and the blacks were well-dressed. And she came out — Anita Baker came out on the stage and said, “Look, this is a show for the family. We’re not gonna have any profanity here. We’re not gonna do any rapping here.” 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. They think that the culture is dominated by Twista, Ludacris, and Snoop Dogg.

WILLIAMS: Oh, and it’s just so awful. It’s just so awful because, I mean, it’s literally the sewer come to the surface, and now people take it that the sewer is the whole story –

O’REILLY: That’s right. That’s right. There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, “M-Fer, I want more iced tea.”

WILLIAMS: Please –

O’REILLY: You know, I mean, everybody was — 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. And there wasn’t any kind of craziness at all.

It seems to me that O’Reilly was clearly discussing the stereotypes held by many people in “white America” and the disparity between those stereotypes and reality, not his own amazement at finding those stereotypes to be inaccurate. Sure, his remarks can be seen as somewhat condescending, as always happens when you praise people for behaving well. But racist? In fact, O’Reilly went out of his way to emphasize that “there’s no difference” between the mainstream of black culture and the mainstream of white culture.

Another fact that has hardly been noted in this controversy is that Juan Williams, O’Reilly’s guest and co-discussant, is a renowned black journalist who has written a great deal about issues of race. The Washington Post story did not even mention Juan Williams — which is rather ironic, because Williams worked for the Post for 23 years, from 1976 to 1999, as editorial writer, op-ed columnnist, and White House correspondent. (Today, he is a political contributor at Fox News but also a frequent commentator on PBS and a senior national correspondent for National Public Radio.) Would Williams have played along with racist comments by O’Reilly? I doubt it. In fact, one virtually unreported fact is that he has come to O’Reilly’s defense over the incident.

The Post did talk to CNN’s Rick Sanchez, who has made a prime-time story of the O’Reilly race flap:

Sanchez, in a phone interview, said O’Reilly is perpetuating racism by using “the Mandingo argument” against black rappers. “The idea [is] that there’s a big, bad African American out there that we all need protection from,” he said. “It’s a dangerous way of looking at racial relations. The African American community is extremely complex. The thinking that black culture is confined to guys sticking their underwear out is just wrong, and many African Americans resent it.”

But isn’t that what O’Reilly was saying, too — if in a rather clumsy fashion? On this one, I think he’s getting a bum rap — and while I have criticized him in the past for calling Media Matters “smear merchants,” I think his charge has just acquired a little more legitimacy.
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16 Comments

Filed under media, race

16 responses to “The O’Reilly race factor

  1. Kevin B. O'Reilly

    O’Reilly expressed surprise that the staff and patrons at Syliva’s were well-behaved, and that the performers and concertgoers at the Anita Baker concert were well-dress. Now, why should he be surprised, unless he had some preconceived idea — some might call it a prejudicial notion — that black concertgoers and black diners would necessarily be ill-behaved, poorly dressed and vulgar?

    What kind of person believes that sort of thing?

  2. blogagog

    It’s extremely easy to believe a thing about a group that you have no contact with, Kevin. For example, you’d be amazed how many people think America is trying to conquer the world.

    And STUNNED to hear how many muslims believe Jews need christian blood to make matzos. Not kidding.

    So, “What kind of person believes that sort of thing?” The answer is ‘the uninformed’.

  3. mike volpe

    I appreciate you coming to the defense of O’Reilly on this one given your prior criticism of him. It shows you are a person that judges things for what they are not what you want them to be.

    As for Media Matters, they are a wholly owned subsidiary of George Soros, and they are his attack dogs and O’Reilly has pointed that out. They have attacked him over 100 times year to date, Hannity is a close second, followed by Rush. They are bomb throwers. That is what they do, because Soros funds them to be that.

    Kevin,

    you obviously didn’t actually listen to the taped discussion. His point was that he couldn’t get over the difference between the way gangsta rap culture portrays blacks and the way blacks behave in reality and his point is that if people got to know blacks, and didn’t simply know them from gangsta rap, that this would go a long way toward some of the racial healing.

    As for CNN, this is a clear case of an envious competitor running with a story they had no business perpetuating. They will have this stain on them from now on, and their credibility hit will be well deserved.

  4. Revenant

    Kevin, the point — which you seem to have missed — is that both the entertainment and the news media portray “black America” and “white America” as radically different, when in fact they are very, very similar.

    O’Reilly’s a jerk, but he was right on the money here.

  5. Cathy Young

    Right on, rev!

  6. Robert

    Two times in my life I’ve been disillusioned about black people. Once back in the ’60s I bought the notion that blacks were uniformly oppressed and if liberated they would be supermen, like the technician on Mission Impossible. Then I actually met some blacks and realized they were quite normal, including the normal impulse to milk the affirmative action nonsense for all it was worth. Then in 2000, when I thought blacks were quite separate and inalterably opposed to “White” culture, I came back from a trip to the Third World and realized that it was quite different out there and the one group most like White Americans was not Europeans or Jews or Japanese but Black Americans.

  7. S. Weasel

    Meh. I live near the Projects. I’ll just sit over here and keep my mouth shut, shall I?

  8. My Cats Are Sitting By The Window

    “O’Reilly expressed surprise that the staff and patrons at Syliva’s were well-behaved, and that the performers and concertgoers at the Anita Baker concert were well-dress.”

    See, this is exactly where you and the other O’Reilly critics are getting your whole thing wrong. He wasn’t “expressing surprise.” He was relaying a simple observation, and using it to counter what he presumes to be widely mistaken beliefs on the part of others.

    Nowhere in his words is there conveyed a sense of “surprise.” That’s what you’re reading into it, possibly because you have preconceptions about O’Reilly, about middle-aged white males, about discussions of race, or any number of things.

    The only group-insensitivity charge to which O’Reilly is vulnerable here involves whites: his presumption that whites generally are too ignorant to realize these basic things about blacks. But it was not O’Reilly himself who was revealing ignorance about blacks.

  9. Ecclesiastes

    “Now, why should he be surprised, unless he had some preconceived idea — some might call it a prejudicial notion — that black concertgoers and black diners would necessarily be ill-behaved, poorly dressed and vulgar?

    What kind of person believes that sort of thing?”

    A neighboring city to me – Gulfport, MS has enacted a law against excessively loud car audio systems. Any guess what those systems were projecting? Any guess how many people each of those cars were broadcasting that image to?

    It was music, you know. The kind of thing that happens at … concerts?

    What kind of person can ignore that sort of thing?

  10. Kevin B. O'Reilly

    O’Reilly’s using his personal experiences as some kind of counterpoint to media presentations of black Americans is idiotic. No one with any brains would *expect* black people to behave improperly at a restaurant. To point to a case where O’Reilly had a positive interaction clearly underlies that he somehow expected something different. Why he expected something different says more about his beliefs than it does about influence of hip-hop culture.

  11. Cathy Young

    Kevin, where do you see the suggestion that O’Reilly expected something different?

  12. Cathy Young

    Robert, just curious at your choice of words; why “disillusioned” that blacks are simply normal people? Because “disillusioned” usually has negative connotations.

  13. Brad L

    But in the context of the entire segment, it was not an expression of shock on O’Reilly’s part so much as an expression of being struck by the contrast between this normality and the image of African-Americans in the media.

    I’m not sure I buy this. For one thing, in the three paragraphs you quote leading up to his “I couldn’t get over it” statement, he never mentions media portrayals or anything like it. He never says anything like “If all you ever saw was the media, you’d think…” His words, at that point, sure seem like a personal statement, not a critique of the media.

    Additional context only comes later, when he contrasts the patrons of an Anita Baker concert to Ludacris and Snoop Dog. Even then, though, there is just something… odd about his fascination with the way everyone black is dressed.

    Sure, his remarks can be seen as somewhat condescending, as always happens when you praise people for behaving well.

    Particularly true when you are singling them out by race, and complimenting their dress and manners. I guess this really expresses why I find this disconcerting. It calls to mind some of the backhanded comments of the “Gosh, they were so eloquent” variety (of which I recall a particular number during the Thomas/Hill, er, affair).

    You can try to put it in a better context, but at the very least, these statements are valid to question. Interpretations may differ, but I think raising a flag on them falls well below the level of “smear.”

    [And you are absolutely right -- the coverage should have mentioned Williams' participation on the show.]

  14. Revenant

    I guess this really expresses why I find this disconcerting. It calls to mind some of the backhanded comments of the “Gosh, they were so eloquent” variety (of which I recall a particular number during the Thomas/Hill, er, affair).

    There’s a huge difference, brad. The phenomenon of referring to any black person who doesn’t talk like he just stepped out of the projects plays into the stereotype that the average black person talks like they just stepped out of the projects.

    “Golly, he said ‘May I ask you a question?’ instead of ‘Imma ax you a question, aight?’. What an eloquent young black man he is!”.

    O’Reilly, on the other hand, was explicitly stating that the stereotype is wrong. He’s not astounded at the novelty of meeting a black man whose pants don’t show his underwear — he’s astounded at what a lousy job the media does at portraying black people.

  15. Donald Wolberg

    Mr. O’Reilly has always seemed to me to be a man in search of an identity he needs, that of intelligence and insight, but has been frustrated by being what he is, a former High School teacher, of less than superb capabilities and a very pedestrian set of qualities. He fills much air time with people he can dominate, lots of blond news-ladies, and old cronies. One wonders if he reflects what American viewers want or what they are.

  16. Anonymous

    Cathy,

    Where have you gone? I haven’t seen you post here or at Reason. Should I be looking for you somewhere else?

    You are missed! I hope all is well.

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