I have a confession to make. I watch Fox News. A lot. I’m not really sure why since I’m not a suburban-dwelling middle to upper class retiree who anyone would describe as a conservative. I have absolutely no illusions that Fox is “news.” My working theory is that it’s something akin to the proverbial train wreck that you don’t necessarily want to see but simply can’t look away from. But like a masochistic moth attracted to a lamp of ignorance and misinformation, I keep returning to Ailes’ world.
It was there that I first saw Bill O’Reilly’s rant about President Obama’s recent comments on the Trayvon Martin case and his own experience as a black man in America. The “Talking Points Memo” has since gone viral, but for those who haven’t yet had the misfortune to hear it, allow me to sum up Mr. O’Reilly’s argument. The problems of poverty and crime that exist in the country’s predominantly African American communities are largely the fault of black people themselves who insist on being drug dealers and single mothers. The reprehensible point that the host of The O’Reilly Factor was making is not new, as he has on several occasions blamed “black culture” for the disproportionate poverty and incarceration rates of young African American men. This latest tirade is simply the most brazen and offensive of its kind yet.
Much virtual and literal ink has been spilled in recent weeks about the “conversation about race” that comes on the heels of the Martin verdict, though I think two points need to be emphasized that I haven’t seen or heard much about during this period of national soul searching. Both are gleaned from my observations of how the right in general, and Fox News in particular, has approached this conversation, and the responses from liberals. I noted after watching Mr. O’Reilly’s ignorant comments that apart from the simple factual errors it contained – which were summed up nicely by Chris Hays on MSNBC – the bigger problem behind the Fox News host’s frothing indictment was that it was made in the first place. Who, exactly, is Bill O’Reilly to opine on the supposed deficiencies of “black culture?” Hays and others are right to point out the lies O’Reilly espouses to his viewers, but I think they miss the forest for the trees. Here we have an elderly white man paternalistically presuming to tell black people what’s wrong with them and their culture. I believe this may be part of the reason we’re still having trouble addressing what Du Bois called the “problem of the color line.”
O’Reilly is also far from the only Fox denizen to weigh in on the status of race relations in America. Chris Wallace, who to his credit rejected his colleagues’ claims that Obama’s speech was somehow “race baiting,” nevertheless made it a point to emphasize that African Americans were convicted of homicide at rates above their percentage of the population. Media Matters, a watchdog group famous for reporting on inaccuracies in the right-wing media, responded by putting these statistics in the proper social and historical context. Fox and Friends co-host Steve Doocy recently parroted the “race hustlers” theme that has characterized his network’s reaction to the President’s comments as well and was similarly taken to task by Media Matters. Finally, Melissa Harris-Perry wittily offered a retort to Sean Hannity’s bizarre remark about Obama identifying with Trayvon Martin’s alleged drug use.
While all of these responses to Fox News’ wretched treatment of the race issue are important and necessary, I again feel that there is an overarching piece to this that is being missed. All of the commentary on the right has one central theme: that comments, actions, and attitudes among white Americans and black Americans can be treated identically. That somehow African Americans should view the world through the same lens as whites. It’s a phenomenon that Professor Ibram Kendi has called exclusionary egalitarianism in reference to opposition to equal opportunity programs. The “race hustler” narrative that is so common these days in the right wing media implicitly assumes that race ought to be of no consequence one way or the other in political and social discourse. And for white Americans, it doesn’t have to be. Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and myself can all go about our lives without thinking about race because we’re all straight, white males; America’s default setting. I believe this is the point President Obama was making, and it has been utterly lost on conservatives.
Of course I understand that Fox is simply telling its viewers what they want to hear, particularly considering only 1.38% of them are black. Nevertheless, the network remains at the top of the cable news ratings pile and it would be foolish to ignore the influence it has. It’s simply a shame that it’s chosen to lie about the specifics of the race issue, and ignore its context in general.