Daily Archives: September 28, 2007

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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