Last Thursday, I participated in a discussion of the O'Reilly controversy on WMCS. I suspect it was entertaining, but I increasingly find the whole thing depressing.
O'Reilly was trying to make a point about the ways in which white people misapprehend black culture and the way in which hip hop culture feeds those misapprehensions. He may not have made it with the aplomb that he ought to have made it and he made not have included all the necessary disqualifiers like, well, of course, every one should have expected the scene at Sylvia's in Harlem to be as it was. A huge emphasis is placed on the statement that he "couldn't get over" what he observed at Sylvia's, although, as I have already blogged, the context in which he made the statement and his reference to conversations that he had with his grandmother over 40 years ago suggests another interpretation.
My colleagues made statements that are just as stereotypical as the ones that they wrongly accuse O'Reilly of. Bill is "too old" to have his first experience with civil black people at Sylvia's in 2007. But the problem there is that we know - at the very least from his statements about his grandma, that this is not true.
Another said that "Billie" had culture shock because he finally got to the hood. But we know, because Al Sharpton has told us, that O'Reilly has dined in Harlem with him on more than one occasion.
On the one hand, I can understand this. O'Reilly began his discussion by making the point that every black person in America has experienced racial stereotypes and that has to affect the way that you see the world. A local blogger, Rene Crawford, recently wrote a post that discussed her experience of what she saw as subtle racism. I have no doubt that some of what she describes reflects racial stereotypes. That's problematic because, although it may not have hurt Rene for people to call her "polite," the fact that the stereotypes exist can have more troublesome manifestations.
But another local blogger, Nick Schweitzer, wrote an interesting response. The trouble with the search for "subtle" racism is that it is without content. There are no standards and we can find or not find it as we see fit.
During the break during the discussion on MCS, one of my colleagues, Curt Harris, observed that we come from different experiences and this bears upon how we see things. Absolutely true but that is part of the problem and not the key to a solution. An African-American might say that she "knows" that something is racially motivated because she can recall instances when it turned out that similar things were the product of racial bias. A white person may respond that he "knows" it is not, because he can recall white people doing the same thing without racial motivation.
My problem with the reaction to O'Reilly is bound up with two things. First, I think it's largely a product of the left-right war. It's more about O'Reilly than about what he said.
Second (and more importantly), I think that it reflects an approach to race that is rooted in a time when racism was far more pervasive and threatening that it is today. While that doesn't mean that racism is not still a problem, a good deal of our discussion about race today probably needs to focus on things other than racial bias. We need to talk about things that may be, in some sense, a product of historical bias and our response to it, but that won't be ameliorated by the elimination of bias.
That was what O'Reilly was trying - however clumsily - to do. I know that at least two of my interlocutors on MCS agree with the larger point he was making about hip hop culture. To draw on another local example, there was an immediate reaction to John McAdams study on racial disparities in incarceration in WI Interest which I believe missed the point because the critics focused on the old racial template. But yesterday, in the New York Times, a black sociologist named Orlando Patterson who is not, in any sense, a conservative pointed out the obvious. Addressing racial bias in the criminal justice system is a worthy and essential goal, but eliminating it will not do away with the racial disparity in incarceration. The solution to that lies elsewhere.
It's going to be hard, however, to talk about that if we enforce a racial speech code that is both hyperactively aggressive and wildly subjective. In light of our racial past, white people need to try to be sensitive about what they say. But we also ought to recognize the sea change in our country and start to presume good faith. Without that, we'll stay stuck in 1967 and that's not a good place to be.