Beyond the usual suspicion and antipathy that O’Reilly typically receives as FOX’s heavy hitter, he has recently gotten himself into a new entanglement about comments made in regards to a meal he had at a primarily black New York City restaurant. The ensuing uproar about O’Reilly being a “racist” has yet to die down, but it will soon, and deserves to, primarily because I think it’s a non-story.
Let me be clear here that I am not defending him as some moronic fan boy of the conservative right, because I do not consider myself to be either a fan of his or have a “right-wing” political philosophy. O’Reilly and his colleagues have made an industry out of simplifying and dumbing-down issues. He is a master of fear-mongering, and many of his positions work because of an unspoken appeal to thinly veiled racist tropes many Americans have about blacks, muslims, Mexicans, and on and on. He is only the latest – yet most mainstream - example of this country’s long tradition of xenophobia and proto-fascism.
Yet O’Reilly is absolutely right when he says that the biggest damage the current witch hunt against him will have is that it will prevent people in this country from having a dialogue about race and racism. If there is one issue in this society that is the most context-based and context-driven, it has to be race. I watched his interview with Jesse Jackson last week, as well as the barbs by way of CNN and MSNBC. I then listened to his entire radio segment and interview with Juan Williams which aired on September 19th. I found myself both agreeing and disagreeing with individual points he made in his program, and I think he could have been a bit less crude in his approach, but the overall point he was trying to make was a valid one, which is that there is a huge disconnect between white and black America based on misperceptions and lack of interaction.
Isn’t it ironic that a conservative white guy comes out on a national show and /voluntarily/ decides to talk openly about race and racism? I actually applaud what O’Reilly was trying to do that episode. He shouldn’t be condemned and hounded because of a few words taken out of context from a 35 minute program. In that same program he also said, as noted by the National Journal, that “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.”
The O’Reilly episode is becoming, or has already become, the typical way in which this society deals with race and racism in general. It’s the same pattern with Mel Gibson, Rosie O’Donnell, Michael Richards, and Don Imus: 1) A high profile figure in the media is caught making a slur or negative remark; 2) a media firestorm ensues; 3) the person makes a public apology; and 4) after a few weeks the nation collectively moves back into its usual way of dealing with race and racism, which is to ignore it. Wash, rinse, repeat. (Blatant plug now for one of my favorite blogs and podcasts – Racialicious and Addicted to Race, which I highly recommend. This group blog/podcast often discuss this collective phenomenon of intentional ignorance about race and racism and how unproductive it is for our society).
Yet beyond isolated incidents of foot-in-the-mouthism/public humiliation which become the next day’s tense water cooler jokes at the office, where IS the dialogue about race and racism that this country needs? A virtual cable news and blogosphere firestorm explodes over poorly thought out references to rappers by O’Reilly, yet there is the usual silence when it comes to the larger, structural issues of racism in this society which manifest in crippling poverty, neglect, discrimination in law and policy, and on and on.
A while ago I talked a bit about my own interface with the Katrina disaster, an experience which was a racial catastrophe in the sense that it laid the truth bare for all to see about what this society has allowed to happen. For a while, people then seemed ready to at least acknowledge the legacy of race and its relation to the disaster and its aftermath. Yet that period of philosophical musings and collective self-guilt has come and gone. Now its all Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, elections 2008, elections 2008, elections 2008. I’ve got nothing against the media, or even the blogosphere’s, consummation with all things Iraq or elections 2008, but in those times when you do choose to focus on the issue of race and racism, for God’s sakes dig a little deeper than “Were Bill O’Reilly’s comments racist?”
Which brings me back, again, to Bill. This latest incident will indeed do what he argues – shut down any meaningful dialogue about race or trivialize it as a problem that only exists when the latest politician or celebrity is caught making an obnoxious comment on youtube. Its because of things like this that we can’t as a society move on when it comes to race. You can’t move on if you can’t even have a discussion. As it stands now, white people don’t want to talk about race for fear of mis-speaking and being shouted down in a public forum. And its certainly not just a black/white issue either. There are horrible, bigoted attitudes that exist among minority communities towards other people of color that need to be addressed and confronted, and that is a dialogue that is even further back than the black-white discourse about race.