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By Patricia Wilson-Smith
It’s hard being a seeker of truth. Sometimes, when you go looking for it, you’re not comfortable with what you find.
It was an email that I received from a colleague that alerted me to the latest Bill O’Reilly flap. When I read its contents, I was of course incensed. It was Friday, and I was preparing for a trip to South Carolina to canvass for the Obama Campaign.On early Saturday morning, me and two of the members of the Georgia chapter of BWFO here in Georgia boarded a van headed for Columbia, South Carolina.
When we arrived, we met other Obama volunteers at the Columbia field office of Obama for America. After a hard day of walking the streets, passing out campaign materials and talking to registered voters, we spent a happy evening having dinner together at the home of the SC State Chapter Director of BWFO, Yvonne Robinson.
At Yvonne’s insistence, I was seated at the head of a beautifully decorated table in her formal dining room with several other Obama supporters, who all just happened to be black. This is note-worthy because there were over 60 people in attendance, and an equal number of blacks and whites, though there were a few Asians and Hispanics there as well. The dinner chat inevitably turned to the remarks Bill O’Reilly had made about Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem during a conversation with NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams on his nationally syndicated radio show. Of course, being the opinionated chick that I am, I happily joined in the castigation:
“I can’t believe Bill O’Reilly would say such a thing and think he could get away with it”, said one dinner guest.
“What do you expect – we’re talking about Bill O’Reilly here. He put the ‘R’ in racist”, said another.
“Oh, you better believe I’m gonna get him in my next blog article!” I chimed in gleefully.
And so it went for the rest of the evening. Here and there, people remarking on the irresponsible, blatantly racist comments made by a man who under almost any other circumstance, I would have choked on my own vomit rather than defend. Hmmm. Not the best visual. Sorry.
So we arrive back in Atlanta later that evening, and I drag myself home and fall into bed (walking the streets of Columbia had taken a toll on me). It was the next afternoon before I was rested enough to do a little research so that I could write my scathing rebuke of Bill O’Reilly. I was tingly with anticipation – not since I’d skewered Oprah Winfrey regarding her “I just stopped going” remark had I been so excited about writing a piece.
I read what others had to say about the controversy, in particular the Media Research Council, who are none too happy with Mr. Bill. Then, I ventured onto Bill O’Reilly’s website at http://www.billoreilly.com to listen to the re-play of the interview in question in its entirety. I was sure by listening to the full segment myself, I would be able to uncover even more nuggets of on-air joy to slam Bill with.
What I found instead stopped me dead in my tracks.
The segment opened with Bill doing a diatribe about prejudice in America, one that appeared to have been brought on by the question of whether or not blacks would rebel if OJ Simpson were convicted of the charges stemming from the alleged robbery in Las Vegas. Bill gave what arguably be considered a thought-provoking analysis of why some blacks inevitably defend other blacks, no matter what the evidence or circumstances. The theory he offered was not an inaccurate one – he said basically that blacks in this country have been so discriminated against and so put upon, that now there are two kinds of us – those who have managed somehow to make the conscious decision not to let a history of ongoing wrongs by a racist society cloud our judgment, and those who just can’t seem to help themselves, a sentiment with which I just can’t disagree.
It was near the beginning of this commentary that he mentioned the trip to Sylvia’s and his dinner with Al Sharpton; and yes, he did in fact remark on how surprised he was that the restaurant was like so many others he had visited in New York, but it ended there until a bit later in the show, and that is where those who would hang Bill out to dry have gotten it wrong.
You see, sometime after making that remark, he introduced Juan Williams, and they began a spirited conversation about race relations in America that included a short discussion of the impact of gangster rap on our collective culture. Bill actually defended African Americans, saying that he didn’t believe that most blacks love gangster rap (I for one, do not), and he defended us further by remarking that he believes that most black people, like white people, are middle of the road when it comes to the extremes of racism, and the moral carnage of some rap music, with its sexist, demeaning lyrics and glorification of violence. Again, not far off base.
Then it happened – the moment that I believe started all of this. His voice raised in excitement, and playing off of the verbal jabs coming from Juan Williams, Bill made the following remark:
“That’s right, that’s right – [and] there wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s screaming M-f-fer, I want more ice-tea!”
I was stunned. I realized immediately that not only had Bill O’Reilly not made a racist comment, but that what he had actually tried to do was use his trip to Sylvia’s to illustrate how the media’s distortion of blacks could influence what some whites might have expected to find in an all black restaurant. There was no denying it – O’Reilly had actually made the remark in response to the assertion that white America’s view of African Americans has essentially been reduced to the predominant images of blacks in the media – rap videos, perp walks, and a ridiculous spate of reality shows on the par of ‘Flavor of Love’ and ‘Hot Ghetto Mess’. To re-state – Bill O’Reilly was essentially saying that much of White America has been conditioned to believe that all black people are like what they see in rap videos and on reality shows. He was trying to say that nothing could be further from the truth, as evidenced by the fact that during his time at Sylvia’s, there wasn’t a single person behaving like what we see so often on TV.
I believe in my heart that Bill O’Reilly was trying to engage in a responsible discourse about the state of race relations in America by saying what he did, and that those who naturally want to believe differently, pulled out the salacious parts of his dialog, and strung them together and reported on them in a way that would achieve maximum impact. The conversation was an uncomfortable one to listen to to be sure – it’s always difficult when White America insists on telling us why we are the way we are. But I had to admit to myself that heard in the full context of the discussion, there wasn’t a single racist thing about what Bill O’Reilly said, and armed with that knowledge, I had no choice but to defend the man and set the record straight.
So here I am, typing away, feeling robbed, and pondering why this happened, though I think it’s as simple as this – we’re living in the post-Imus era. There are a select number of television and radio personalities out there that have had targets on their backs (some deservedly so) ever since Don Imus proved in his infinite stupidity that justice can in fact be brought to bear on an irresponsible radio talk show host. And if you’re a black woman, you were forced to endure the discomfort of the whole Imus episode, and no doubt are a bit more sensitive of the remarks that some of these guys make then you might have been before – guys like Shawn Hannity, Neal Boortz, Rush Limbaugh, and yes, Bill O’Reilly. I don’t think any of us could be blamed for a rush to judgment of Mr. O’Reilly without knowing all the facts.
But at least in the case of this latest flap, I’m convinced that lots of people have it wrong, and since I’m convinced of this, it is my duty as a seeker of the truth to stand up and say as much. In a fair and progressive society, it is as important for the socially responsible to stand up and admit when we’re wrong, as it is for us to demand justice when we are right. And this time, the people who went after Bill O’Reilly were just plain wrong.
I listen to and watch both Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh whenever I have the opportunity; people often ask me why. The truth of the matter is, I really do seek the truth in all things, not just in what feels comfortable. I personally need to know why there are so many people out there who seem incapable of understanding that this nation has real problems, that there are people who really can’t just ‘help themselves’, and that even with the amazing gains that Blacks in this country have made, there are still those who are caught in a cycle of poverty and hopelessness that can be directly attributed to the lingering affects of slavery. What I’ve discovered in listening to people like O’Reilly and Limbaugh is that their fervent belief in what they espouse is a direct a result of a number of things – 1) their deeply engrained perspectives on the world, 2) their upbringing, combined with their life experiences and yes, 3) their attitudes towards blacks that have in part been shaped by the images that we’ve allowed the media and the entertainment industry to propagate over the years.
We have to bear some of the blame. Since becoming a mother and responsible adult, I cringe at the sight of shows like ‘Flavor of Love’; I flinch when I see a beautiful young black sister, barely dressed, and draped all over a foul-mouthed rapper; and I even seethe a bit at the thought of some black comedians, who at times can’t seem to deliver a single decent joke without using several dozen profane words, only to descend into the same old sexual blathering we’ve heard a million times over. There’s at least one unavoidable truth in what Mr. O’Reilly had to say that day on his radio show, that I fear many black people simply don’t want to hear – that by allowing ourselves to be caricaturized in the media by music videos, reality shows and the like, we’re helping to add to the belief that we’re not much more than what the media insists on portraying us as. This is not to say that the media has not had a heavy hand in crafting our public image; as someone pointed out in response to my recent article on the disappearance of Nailah Franklin, the media wants to sell airtime – that’s it. As long as the media believes that people prefer to see blacks being handcuffed and led out of inner-city drug houses, or cat-fighting each other over a man who is truly the ugliest human being alive, that’s the kind of fare they’ll crank out, and nothing will change. But black people – if they feed it to us, and we consume it, we can’t complain when others consume it as well. Period.
Bill O’Reilly has not won a new fan. I’ve seen too many of his rants and way too many examples of how he’s gotten it so very wrong, the Ludacris debacle being the most glaring example. He doesn’t understand our culture, and he never will. He chooses to jump all over black rappers when there are white actors and rock stars doing drugs, demeaning women, and getting locked up as well. He clearly has it out for the rap industry, and to me that makes him prejudiced. But his tendency towards snap judgments just means we have to be very careful to choose our battles carefully, and fairly. Rail-roading someone into a bogus controversy without knowing and acknowledging all the facts will do nothing to change things, and I fear, could actually make things worse. I hope by standing up and saying that what’s happening right now to Bill O’Reilly is wrong, it will help us cut through the clutter so that we can focus on those times when going after him is the right thing to do.
But I’m sorry. This ain’t it.