On Easter Sunday President Obama and his family attended church at Shiloh Baptist Church, an historic African American church in Washington, D.C. The pastor of Shiloh Baptist is Dr. Wallace Smith, who along with his pastoral duties is a faculty member and past president of Palmer Theological Seminary, the seminary connected to Eastern University where I also work. Now whenever the President does anything, it is news, but Bill O’Reilly of Fox News went overboard in seeking to attack Obama; he charged that Wallace Smith was a race baiting pastor in the vein of Rev. Jermeiah Wright, and that Obama exercised poor judgment in worshipping there.You remember that Rev. Wright, Obama’s pastor when he lived in Chicago, made strong statements about the nature of racism in the United States that offended the sensibilities of many in the media. Frankly, I thought Rev. Wright was right on point and said so at the time. Nevertheless then candidate Obama was criticized for associating with Rev. Wright and ended up making an historic speech in Philadelphia on his views on racism and the need for racial reconciliation in America. However O’Reilly made in an effort to raise questions about Obama’s judgment and character took issue with Dr. Smith’s perspective on race in America and so called him “Jeremiah Wright Junior” (which was obviously not meant to be a compliment, but probably was!). 

Now O’Reilly’s charge that Wallace Smith was somehow fomenting racial division and the assumptions that led him to make that charge are so outrageous and ludicrous that my first inclination is to simply ignore them (in fact because I rarely watch Fox News I did not know of it until nearly three weeks after the incident). However, in reality O’Reilly and Fox News have such a wide following among political conservatives, one can not simply pass him off as a quack. But more to the point, even though many might object to O’Reilly’s perspective (and in fact in that same show he had a fellow journalist who disagreed with his assessment), the assumptions behind O’Reilly’s statements are ones that are held by many white Americans, including many people of liberal persuasion. For that reason O’Reilly’s statements bear closer examination.

You may see and hear O’Reilly’s statement here. I encourage you to watch the clip at least 2-3 times to become familiar with his statements and move beyond your immediate emotional reaction so as to be able to take a more reasoned and analytical view of what is going on here. There are so many points one could make, space does not allow me to make them all, but let me highlight just a few.

The charge that Dr. Smith is racist is based on a short clip from a lecture he delivered at Palmer Seminary in 2010 on the topic of racism. In the clip he is talking about Jim Crow (i.e. segregation) practices. His point is that while Jim Crow is technically illegal today, it has become sophisticated and mainstreamed. As Smith artistically put it, Jim Crow has “dressed up in a three piece suit” and has become institutionalized not only in public policy but also media outlets such as Fox News. It is this last statement that O’Reilly takes offense at.

O’Reilly begins by calling Dr. Smith a “race activist,” which I find to be a curious term; I’m not sure what exactly it means. O’Reilly is not going for semantic clarity here, he is putting together two politically charged terms (at least for conservatives): “race” and “activist.” The term “race activist” is meant to convey the same kind of fear that “liberal” or “socialist” or “communist” conveys. It is meant to suggest that Dr. Smith is seeking to make white people feel guilty by talking about race and racism, and therefore is being inflammatory and dangerous.

I am part of a group called New Conversations on Race and Ethnicity (NewCORE) of which Dr. Smith is the co-chair and founder. NewCORE’s mission is to facilitate conversations between groups (particularly faith communities) that are predominantly black and predominantly white. On Martin Luther King Day, I participated in a series of inter-racial conversations that NewCORE organized. The purpose of groups like New CORE is not to propagate white guilt, but rather to raise awareness and understanding across racial and ethnic lines. Now for whites one of the first consequences of greater awareness is often a feeling of guilt. As one who has facilitated and participated in such conversations many times, I have come to see that for most whites, including myself, guilt about race is often just beneath the surface. But the goal of raising awareness is not to cause racial division but to create understanding. So if that is what a race activist does, then I am one too.

O’Reilly then says he is insulted and that in all his years at Fox News he has never met anyone who is racist. Like many whites (and in fact many people of color), O’Reilly thinks of racism only in individualistic terms, that a “racist” is a person who uses the n-word and is overtly hostile to people of other races. So in effect what O’Reilly is saying is that he hasn’t met anybody at Fox who goes around using racist language. However racist language and behavior is only the tip of the racism iceberg. What Wallace Smith refers to in the clip O’Reilly airs is institutionalized racism, that is policies, practices and perspectives, which have become normative and socially acceptable yet in their effect consistently treat people of color in a deleterious way. So while O’Reilly or the head of a government agency may not go around spouting racial slurs, the effect of their actions still can have a racist effect.

What makes institutionalized racism so hideous is that fact that it can be accepted as normative. So for instance, as state governments across the country cut their education budgets, poorer urban and rural school districts are taking the biggest hits. Those districts tend to overwhelmingly serve students of color. Those students of color just happen to live in the communities that most often have fewer libraries, city services, grocery stores and clean parks. And it just so happens that the people in those communities happen to be more unemployed and have less adequate healthcare insurance, if they have it at all. And if they do work, it is not in their community but a community far away from where they live. Moreover, it turns out that the young men in these communities are more likely to commit crimes and go to jail creating what Michelle Alexander has called “The New Jim Crow.”

Now did anyone at any point along this chain of causation say “we’re going to stick it to those n—–s.” Not necessarily, but the negative effect of those policies is disproportionately impacts people of color. In fact in his piece O’Reilly refers to U.S. culture as “race-neutral,” which given the history of race relations in this country seems ludicrous, but beyond that is negated by the impact of policies such as I just described.

As long as white people like O’Reilly only see racism in strictly individualistic and personal terms, they miss the larger issue of how our society is structured in such a way that gives white people like me and Bill O’Reilly privileges and advantages most black and Latino people can not assume. I am not profiled because of my race. I am not denied an interview because of my race. Real estate values don’t go down when I move into a neighborhood. When I make a public mistake, people don’t say I am a discredit to my race. Moreover, I don’t even have to be reminded everyday that I am white, except perhaps when I am in a social situation where I am a racial minority — which by the way is what people of color face everyday in this society. I don’t have to hear people tell me that I am a “good white person” and so “articulate” for a person of my race.

If the kinds of policies and practices that impact communities of color every day were effecting predominantly white communities, O’Reilly would be crying “foul” and “racist,” but because white communities have been disproportionately protected from such effects, O’Reilly thinks people like Dr. Wallace Smith are “race-baiting” and stirring up trouble for simply pointing the disparities out.

While there is so much more that one could say in response to O’Reilly statements, I will leave it at that. What is so disgusting is that his ignorance is willful. He is not only uninformed, he chooses to be uninformed by choosing not to consider the words of an accomplished scholar and man of integrity such as Dr. Wallace Smith. Instead O’Reilly dismisses Smith because his feelings are hurt and he further twists those feelings into an attack on a president whose views he doesn’t like. While those of us who are white would like to distance ourselves from O’Reilly, I think it is important for us to consider and grapple with the ways in which we may think and respond like him. Moreover, we should use this incident as a way of deepening our understanding of how deeply embedded racism is in our society.

In the words of Shakespeare, O’Reilly “protesteth too much” and in fact proves the very point he seeks to criticize.

[Pictures courtesy of Google Images]