Monday, October 01, 2007

Bill O'Reilly and racism

So... Bill O'Reilly goes into a restaurant owned and patronized by black folks. And he couldn't get over this fact: they might as well have been in one owned and patronized by white folks! Isn't that amazing?

Now, O'Reilly is being called racist by folks. And why? He says that he was just pointing out how some people don't know that black folks are just like white folks, except, you know... different skin color.

Oh, yeah, and job discrimination, higher poverty rate, greater risk of arrest for "driving while black", but he didn't mention the unpleasant bits. No, he meant there was no one saying something like "get me another iced tea, M.F-er," like you might expect... if you were an idiot and racist as all hell.

Is Bill O'Reilly racist? Well, to answer that question, you need to understand what racism is. It's the idea that one race is superior (or inferior) to others. It's a belief that race makes a meaningful difference, and the worst part about it is that it's often subtle and unconscious.

In 2000, a police officer shot a black actor to death. Was this "racist"?

I'm going to anger some people right now and say "we don't know, and never will". A police officer saw a black man with a (fake) gun at a Halloween party. He shot him nine times. Why?

If it had been a white man, would he have thought "ohmygod he's going to shoot someone!" or would he have felt he had time to try to contain the situation? Or, heck, would he have thought "goddamn it, I don't care if it's a costume party, people shouldn't wave fake guns around!"

We don't know. We'll never know. We can't watch a "what might have been" and see if the cop would have treated a white man differently. It's a question we can't answer, but it's one we have to ask.

I hope some of you stopped on the incongruity there... if we can't answer it, why do we have to ask?

Because it's the only way we can learn. It's the only way we can develop. Look, it's easy to learn that racism is wrong, that you shouldn't go around using words like "nigger". It's easy to learn that you shouldn't take a job away from a competent black person and give it to a less competent white person. It's not so easy to learn when an unconscious prejudice has bubbled to the surface and caused us to do something racist. So we have to ask the question, we have to make ourselves a little uncomfortable, and we have to be willing to accept the discomfort of not knowing. It's not a lot of fun, but face it, there are some toxic ideas about folks out there, and it's easy to pick some of them up without even realizing it... and if we care about treating folks right, we have to combat those ideas in ourselves.

Now, here's the interesting thing. Bill O'Reilly is rejecting charges of racism, saying that he was actually trying to combat those ideas in others. He said he knows a lot of people have bad ideas about black people and he wanted to dispel them. Okay, fine... but he said thathe couldn't get over the fact that the restaurant was just like any other restaurant.

He didn't say "You know, it suddenly struck me. A lot of people probably wouldn't believe that this restaurant was just like any other one." He didn't say "I bet some people would be surprised to find that it was just like any other restaurant." He said that he couldn't get over it.

And that matters.

Maybe he mis-spoke; hey, it's a possibility. But even if he did, he was still saying that "black folks can act just like white folks!" which, frankly, anyone should know. It's very similar to the guy who called Barack Obama "articulate", like it is a surprise to see a well educated man talk like a well educated man, if he's also black. It's damning with faint praise, and it probably is due to a good bit of unconscious racism.

Should he be continually lambasted for this? No. But I wish like hell he was man enough to dig into his own words, and look at his own views, as deeply as he's willing to dig in against those he disagrees with. Then, maybe he could complain "Okay, yes, that was a stupid thing to say, but at least I'm trying, okay?"

And then we might see some real, and interesting, discussions about race in this country.

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