When I hear people say that what this country needs is a national conversation on race, I shudder. Don't they listen to the one we have? Every attempt to discuss the subject ends in race-baiting and cheap shots.
The latest example is the controversy brewing the past week over remarks made by Bill O'Reilly last week on his radio show. Chatting about race relations with Juan Williams, a black (and yes, his race is significant; we'll get to that in a minute) NPR correspondent who is also a regular contributer to Fox News, O'Reilly decried the image of black America presented in hip-hop videos. He mentioned attending an Anita Baker and looking around at the audience to see that "the blacks were well dressed...This is what America doesn't know. They think the culture is dominated by Twista, Ludacris and Snoop Dogg."
O'Reilly also mentioned having lunch with Al Sharpton at Sylvia's, the well-known Harlem soul-food restaurant. "There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming "M-f-er, I want some more ice tea.' It was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there ordering and having fun and there wasn't any craziness at all." To me, it sounds like O'Reilly is making a legitimate point that I've also heard from activists like Sharpton and Jesse Jackson: that hip-hop music is creating a distorted and damaging image of black America, that it presents the seamy gangsta-rap life as the norm, when the reality is much different. That's especially so when you listen to the whole segment or read a partial transcript that include O'Reilly's broader remarks, including an acknowledgment of white racism: "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."
Still, the nuances may strike some people differently; other ears may hear O'Reilly's statements as patronizing. But were they really "racially charged," as the left-wing media monitor Media Matters claims? Or "insane," as the Village Voice wrote? Or a shining example of "Bill O'Reilly in all his racist glory?" as the lefty blog Daily Kos decreed?
The cheapest shot of all comes from CNN's Rick Sanchez, who -- referring to a movie about white sexual fantasies about blacks -- told the Washington Post that O'Reilly was using "the Mandingo argument...that there's a big, bad African American out there that we all need protection from." That's a startlingly dumb summation of O'Reilly's argument, but what Sanchez really ought to be ashamed of is the way he allowed a guest on his show to engage in a driveby sliming of the NPR correspondent Juan Williams. (I told you we'd get back to him.)
Williams, a former Washington Post columnist, is author of Eyes on The Prize, a best-selling history of the civil rights movement that he adapted into a documentary that won an Emmy and was nominated for an Oscar. Stanford history professor Clay Carson, the editor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s papers, called it "the principal film account of the most important American social justice movement of the 20th century." Yet Sanchez stood by without comment or protest Wednesday night when one of his guests called Williams "the eternal happy Negro" whose role on O'Reilly's show was "to congratulate him on his racism."
Way to elevate the conversation, Rick. I guess this means it's okay for Lou Dobbs, next time you're debating immigration, to call you a wetback.