I'm feeling a bit guilty because I didn't intervene more directly back in 2007 when Bill O'Reilly was suffering from foot-in-mouth disease. I did suggest in a blog entry that he should refrain from trying to help black people by making inane observations marveling at our ability to drink ice tea and eat in a restaurant without break dancing and spouting profanity; however, I didn't send Mr. O'Reilly a personal note cautioning him to never again discuss the affairs of black folks. My bad.
Last week, O'Reilly took issue with Rev. Al Sharpton's declaration that Michael Jackson was an African-American icon. Sharpton asserted that Jackson's use of his status as an entertainer to knock down doors in the music industry such as breaking the color barrier on MTV, and landing on the cover of Rolling Stone was another step in the same journey towards racial equality as evidenced by Rosa Parks decision to sit down on that bus. Sharpton also noted Jackson's considerable charitable contributions to organizations and individuals, including his bringing together the star power to produce We Are the World long before there was a Live-Aid. I agree with Sharpton's assessment; however, I don't know that all African-Americans do, but I feel confident in saying that a significant majority view MJ as an African-American icon. However, I digress; this really is not about MJ.
Let me try and explain. A few years back I was attending a birthday party for a friend who is a white male. Another guest, also a white male, whom I had never met, attempted to engage me in a conversation about what he perceived to be the problems of black folks. I attempted to dissuade him from taking this path. I was the only black guest at the party (it was very small, maybe a dozen people) and I was in no mood for a serious discussion about race. He persisted and made the fatal error of proceeding to speak of, "You people...." I really don't recall what he said after that; it's difficult to think clearly when your head is revolving and you're trying to control your impulse to do a windmill on somebody's head. My friend, the birthday boy, observed that, "White people should have more sense than to ever attempt to tell black people how to be black." I love this man. This is why we are friends.
So, Bill O'Reilly, this is an open letter to you. If you would like to be friends with black people, you must understand that neither you nor any white person gets to tell us who our icons are. You do not get to measure our blackness. You do not get to sling accusations that any of us want to be white. You don't know or understand any of us that well. If we tell you how we feel, then you need to listen and try to understand our feelings, not tell us that our feelings are invalid.
Once and for all, understand that there is no such thing as reverse racism. You made that up to soothe your conscience. Racism is unfounded hatred for a group that you perceive as being inferior to your group. Any anger that we have towards white people is not unfounded; it's based on more than 400 years of discrimination in this country, much of it legalized. We don't hate you; we just want you to acknowledge that our shared history is based on an unconscionable system of discrimination and to recognize that our anger is righteous. We don't believe that you are inferior; we never have. We have tried to blend your cultural norms and values with ours. We ask that you respect ours and recognize that they too have shaped this culture. When we express distrust of institutions that have traditionally been exclusively white and that have intentionally excluded us by starting our own institutions, that's not reverse racism; it's called survival. Understand that just because you have begun to allow everyone to play in the sandbox, it's still going to take some time before we fully believe that you really mean it. Perhaps when we get to build more of the sandboxes, we'll feel more comfortable entering them.
Please stop interjecting, "I never owned slaves!" into every discussion of race. We know that. However, do acknowledge that as a member of the majority group, you benefited from white privilege, the biggest element of which is that you didn't have to notice race. Slavery was certainly an evil, but the real horror in this country is the generations of Jim Crow, of legalized discrimination that lasted well into the 20th century. The civil rights movement wasn't about slavery; it was about the system of legalized discrimination put into place after slavery was legally outlawed to ensure that black people continued to be placed in a position of servitude and exclusion in the United States of America. This isn't ancient history; it's my life.
I know that you are tired of talking about race; so am I. Perhaps the day will come when such discussions are no longer necessary. I dream of a day when I will not turn on my television to hear a little black child trying to hold back his tears as he recounts the racial hatred that he heard from white adults who feared that the Black and Hispanic children in his summer camp group would contaminate their swimming pool. When that day comes, I'll be the first person to stop talking about race. In the meantime, Mr. O'Reilly, please feel free to speak with us, but don't presume that you can tell us who we are, or how we should feel.