You know, when I heard a black man on TV yesterday, excusing Bill O’Reilly’s obvious racism (see my previous post), by claiming that the Fox Noise host was "taken out of context," I paused a little, as I tend to do, and tried to think of a context in which his words are not racist.
I can’t think of one.
I’m a white guy — very white. If I walked around naked you could see me at midnight with the lights turned off. And I have known people like Bill O’Reilly all of my life. In fact, half of my family members think like Bill O’Reilly. It’s called ignorance, folks, and "unintended" racism based on ignorance is almost worse than overt racism when it comes to creating a country in which everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender or sexual preference, has an equal shot at the American dream, whatever that may be for them. I don’t see O’Reilly as a virulent, David Duke-type racist; in fact, he’s all too typical these days.
The problem with many white Americans is that an awful lot of them think they got to wherever they are because, as white people, they see themselves as superior to all other ethnic groups. well, except asians when it comes to math and science, anyway. They are capable of seeing white people as individuals, but are incapable of seeing other minority groups that way. Far too many white people are apparently of the opinion that, when Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton speaks, every African American turns listens to every word, enraptured, and then goes out and does whatever they say. There seems to be no sense that the 40 million blacks in this country are actually 40 million individuals with families, jobs, mortgages, and debt; everything that all of us deal with at one time or another.
To many white people, all African Americans are the same, and think exactly the same way. Worse, because these white people are ignorant, and know very few black people, they are shocked to find out that blacks are more likely to go to church every Sunday than whites; that blacks are more likely to be active in their church; that most blacks hate rap music; or that more whites buy hip-hop CDs than blacks. So why wouldn’t it surprise these same ignorant folks that black people actually like to dress in nice clothes on occasion, and actually like to go to a Broadway show or a good movie, and don’t actually say "motherf***er" every other word? The one thing about stereotyping is that it doesn’t require thought. It’s a hell of a lot easier to decide that all people who are different think the same way.
And don’t think for a minute that I’m only just talking about right wingers, either; I see this kind of thing among a select few white liberals, as well. For years, a bunch of white liberals have opted out of the Democratic Party, and thus the political process, ostensibly because they don’t like what the Democratic Party stands for. A lot of them advocated for Ralph Nader in the last couple of elections, because they felt that only Nader knew how to fix the country’s ills, including racism and poverty. They never noticed that almost everyone around them — almost all of the people who voted for Nader, in fact, were white, male, and rather well off. Now, if our goal as progressives is to help the poor and disadvantaged, and to eliminate racism and inequality in the United States, please explain why white male upper-class college students know more about the plight of minorities do. The answer is, of course, they don’t. But these white liberal know-it-alls do.
Why are so many white people this willfully ignorant? Why would anyone walk into a nice restaurant anywhere in the country, and be surprised to see people dressed nicely, eating good food and not screaming obscenities at the top of their lungs? Why would it even occur to people, just because the restaurant in question just happened to be a black business in a black community, populated with black customers? It’s possible to understand why a 50-year-old guy who’s never left his small Nebraska town, being startled to walk into a Harlem restaurant and seeing so many black people; that part, I get. And if said Cornhusker white guy was pleasantly surprised to find classical music playing on the music system, and people dressed nicely and speaking to each other without calling each other the "n-word" or "motherf***er," then it might be time to take a good hard look at how the media portrays black people, among others.
But Bill O’Reilly isn’t a white guy from small town Nebraska. He was born in New York, and has spent most of his adult life there. It’s difficult to believe that he hasn’t seen black people before, although it’s obvious he’s never set foot in Harlem before. And that’s the problem in a nutshell. We are still a segregated country, even in places like New York. We’ve gotten to the point that we now "allow" black people to enter the white sector of most large cities — as long as they don’t take it over, of course — but white people don’t dare enter an African-American neighborhood. Not because of anything black people do, of course, but because they’re afraid.
A few years back, my car was towed, and the lot it was towed to was in a "black" part of Baltimore. Mine seemed to be the only white face for a mile or two around. I got off the subway, and walked three blocks to the garage, past a whole lot of colorful shops, and hundreds of people shopping. I was actually smiling; there was so much energy, and people were talking and laughing; it reminded me of when I was a small child, and people hung out together, before white people started barricading themselves in the suburbs. I felt totally comfortable there; not in the least bit threatened. Afterward, a white friend asked me if I was scared, and didn’t believe me when I said "no."
There seems to be a "natural" fear of black people on the part of many whites, which prevents them from actually diving in and getting to know people of color; any color. Most of the black people I know are absolutely wonderful, while some of them are absolute jerks. Like everyone else; they’re individuals. Of the ones I know and/or work with, some like Jesse Jackson, many do not. Few like Al Sharpton, and none like Calypso Louie, including several who participated in the "Million Man March" several years ago. And like all humans, they all have the same goals in life; to do whatever it is they want to do, without others throwing up roadblocks to stop them. They want the same opportunities as everyone else. That’s it. Yeah, there are bad black people, but if you haven’t found any bad white people where you are, you’re not looking very hard, because most of the highest profile scumbags in this country are white.
The sort of attitude O’Reilly demonstrated last week, on a national radio show, no less, would be no problem if it was isolated, and had no effect on the people it belittles. But the fact is, many people in power are just like O’Reilly, and the image of all black people lazily hanging out in t-shirts and ripped pants, smoking crack, listening to rap music, calling each other "motherf***er" and "n****r" and sneering angrily at white people who dare come anywhere near their neighborhood, is the image the powerful use to make policy. It’s also the reason why Cynthia McKinney was accosted by a Capitol police officer, and white Republicans generally are not. It’s why, if two people enter a department store at the same time, security people will usually follow the black woman, even if the white man is wearing a trench coat on a July day. It’s why "driving while black" is still a major traffic offense in this country, why a black man is still far less likely to get a job when in competition with a white man, and why black people take the bus, rather than even attempt to hail a cab on a rainy day.
It’s time we got a clue. All people are the same. And if we would put aside our preconceptions and get to know people, we would see that. Bill O’Reilly made a major error the other day, but he is not alone; he is not the problem. He’s a symptom of a much larger societal problem that must be addressed.