Wednesday, September 26, 2007
In Defense of O’Reilly
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Spin Zone Bill haters are having another field day with Bill O’Reilly after his latest shoot from the lip seeming insult of blacks. At first glance O’Reilly’s quip on his radio show that he marveled that black diners at Harlem’s famed Sylvia’s restaurant were “respectful,” didn’t utter m’f s when they ordered, and acted, well, like white folks, in a suburban Italian restaurant, looked and sounded dumb and racist. O’Reilly haters trotted out a string of other O’Reilly borderline race tinged cracks and gaffes over the past years as proof that O’Reilly is at best racially insensitive and at worst an unreconstructed bigot.
Spin Bill is a jello soft target for dumping the racist tag on. But aside from his usual acerbic take-no-prisoners, let fly with the cracks style, the talk show host didn’t say anything that was earth shatteringly offensive. And he certainly didn’t say anything that many whites, non-blacks and a fair number of blacks don’t routinely whisper behind closed doors. That is that blacks supposedly act crude and uncouth in public. There’s no mystery why so many would think and say that. The nightly newscast’s steady diet of crime, drugs, violence, poverty, and dereliction news about life in inner cities reinforces the belief that black neighborhoods are cesspools of neglect, decay, and ill-mannered, bad behaving folk.
Then there’s the other stubborn fact of American life, and that’s that segregation is still alive and well in parts of America. That makes it even tougher to exorcise the warped racial perceptions. The Sunday church hour is still as the old saying goes one of the most segregated hours in America. In school cafeterias, office lunchrooms, and at countless social events, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and whites more often than not huddle tightly together in their separate racial enclaves. There is no prohibition against them mixing and mingling, but it's simply chalked up to personal and social preference.
Most big city schools are more segregated than a decade ago, and they are also poorer and miserably failing. Residential segregation is still the norm in most of these cities, and even when blacks and Latinos integrate neighborhoods, they often don't stay that way very long, white flight insures that they are soon re-segregated.
That's only the big-ticket stuff of segregation. There are the less visible and less easily provable, annoying race distinctions. The cabs that whiz by black passengers, the police officer that routinely stops and frisks young blacks solely because they are young, black, and the galling indignity of being followed by security guards and ignored by clerks and sales personnel in department stores. They are thorn in the side reminders that race in far too many cases still matters. And an even more offensive reminder that the ancient stereotypes of blacks as crime prone and deviant are still very much alive.
The academy award wining film Crash poked fun at the racial stereotypes and off color attitudes of blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians toward each other. One scene that painfully resonated with many blacks was the fearful murmuring of a white middle-class couple that clutched their belongings as they passed two young blacks on the street. The couple couldn’t be blamed for their paranoid fears. They lived in a cloistered world, scared of, and angry with minorities and in perpetual turmoil. Their world was driven by myths, distortions, and half-truths on race.
Even Barack Obama is not totally immune from the occasional veiled racial dig. Talk show guru Rush Limbaugh’s stirred a brief dust up with his insulting tag of Obama as the “magic Negro,” meaning he’s a black that’s bland and palatable to whites. Though Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden profusely apologized for his ill-framed quip that Obama had the intelligence, there was the dangling suspicion that Obama was being singled out as smart as contrast to dumb blacks.
While polls show that whites by big margins say that they’d vote for a black presidential candidate, in the next breath by overwhelming margins they also express big doubts about whether Obama possesses the right stuff to be president. This is a legitimate concern given his relative newness and inexperience with national political issues. But it’s also code talk on the part of some to question his intelligence.
The racist gaffes, cracks, slips of the tongue from politicians and celebrities about blacks that seem to crop up like clockwork every few months is a bell weather that at least with some racial attitudes are frozen deep in time, and stereotypes are still more the norm than the exception.
It’s easy and fun to razz O’Reilly as a loudmouthed racist, turn the tables and give him a dose of his own medicine. But dumping on O’Reilly for giving his honest personal reaction to the scene at Sylvia’s is disingenuous and self-serving. It simply puts O’Reilly on the hook while letting far too many others off of it.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.