Judging Bill O'Reilly: Why His Comments About Lunch in Harlem Matter

Too smart to personally use an epithet in the way Don Imus finally did, he instead turns rap culture into a straw man used to represent all or most of black America.
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The worst thing about trying to talk honestly and incisively about race in America is dealing with the demagogues.

And there are few folks in modern media -- besides, perhaps fellow red state pundit Rush Limbaugh -- who push buttons on race more effectively from the conservative side than Fox News' Bill O'Reilly.

I've written before about the ways in which O'Reilly couches racially insulting ideas -- treating gangsta rap culture like the primary voice of black America and then blaming a host of ills affecting black people on that cartoonish caricature.

Now, after an attempt at rapprochement with civil rights advocate Al Sharpton, O'Reilly has stepped in it again, this time by marveling at how he had dinner with Sharpton at a Harlem restaurant and people were civil to him; no cursing, crotch grabbing or ugly behavior in sight.

Here's the quote, fresh from the admittedly liberal media watch Web site, Media Matters: "(O'Reilly) reported that he "had a great time, and all the people up there are tremendously respectful," adding: "I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship." Later, during a discussion with National Public Radio senior correspondent and Fox News contributor Juan Williams about the effect of rap on culture, O'Reilly asserted: "There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea.' You know, I mean, everybody was -- it was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn't any kind of craziness at all."

For background, here's my first column, written in 2002, about how O'Reilly uses racially charged language about gangsta rappers to scare his presumably white viewership and press his points. Here's my second column about O'Reilly's racist rhetorical tricks, employed this time to criticize those stuck in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Here's his response to the Katrina column -- a typically personal attack in which he cites his radio comments, not the TV appearance I criticized.

I think these comments are typical of O'Reilly's technique. Too smart to personally use an epithet in the way Don Imus finally did, he instead turns rap culture into a straw man used to represent all or most of black America. Then, he's free to tee off on the stereotypical excesses of THAT culture, rather than talk about real, live black people with all their contradictions intact.

In O'Reilly's world, black people were either vocal protesters like Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, or straight-up thugs like N.W.A. After his trip to Sylvia's, O'Reilly seems amazed to meet black folks who don't fit his disconnected stereotype of what we are.

The most disappointing turn for me in this media meltdown was watching a discussion on the issue this morning on The Today Show. Anchor Matt Lauer, clearly unsympathetic to critics, kept pressing the point that O'Reilly was trying to be complimentary, if by using "ham-fisted" language.

But when it comes to dialogues on race, I judge people's intent and meaning by their history. And O'Reilly has never been one to seek understanding with an open mind. To this black American, his words felt like the most backhanded compliment I'd heard from a celebrity in many years -- a congratulation to black people for having, finally, the ability to act like we have some sense.

News flash, Bill: black people have been conducting themselves this way for many, many years. I'm just sorry that it took a lunch with Al Sharpton for you to finally realize it.

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