CNN co-host Kiran Chetry and CNN contributor Roland Martin, in a segment on Tuesday’s "American Morning," discussed comments on race Fox News host Bill O’Reilly had recently made on his radio show, and the question you might expect came up: "Is this going to be one of those Don Imus moments?"Yes, that's about what I'd expect, all right, in an age when a heap big percentage of so-called news coverage consists of trying to catch public figures saying anything that might be construed as offensive or controversial, and then creating the controversy.
If you are lucky enough to have avoided hearing of the latest proto-Don Imus moment, you should immediately click away from this posting. Otherwise, let us see what we can make of it.
Still here? All right. To refresh your memory, here is what O'Reilly is quoted as saying after visiting a Sylvia's, a Harlem "soul food" restaurant, with race racketeer Al Sharpton:
I think black Americans are starting to think more and more for themselves. There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, "M-Fer, I want more iced tea." They were ordering and having fun, and it wasn't any kind of craziness at all.Depending on the context, this bizarre pronouncement could have had some point; standing in splendid isolation, it sounds like a stoned teenager's text message. Starting to think more for themselves? Meaning, ignoring demagogues like Reverend Shakedown and "Tawana Al"?
But if that was the implication, why had he just gone swanning up in Harlem with Al? And would even the most crass rapper "scream" for iced tea in the manner described? What else would people be doing in a restaurant besides ordering, and having fun or trying to? Who has ever accused black-owned restaurants of craziness or being a moral danger to society?
O'Reilly's remark is so dim you couldn't cut through it with a searchlight, but that didn't stop CNN's Kiran Chetry from trying to turn it into the Story of the Millennium. Talking with Martin, she said:
So, he went on to say, "I think that black Americans are starting to think more and more for themselves, getting away from the Sharptons and the Jacksons and people trying to lead them into a race-based culture." He says that all of this was taken out of context, and that he didn't have a racial intent. Do you buy that?Either Ms. Chetry heard something O'Reilly said that wasn't quoted, or she was misquoting him to make it sound more inflammatory.
Martin actually made the only intelligent (if less than articulate) observation in the whole discussion: "Well, first of all, I mean, you can make a dumb comment and not have a racial intent. I mean, you can have a racial intent or ignorance intent. And so, my problem is this notion that somehow African-Americans are ‘starting’ to think for themselves, as if we haven't been thinking beforehand."
Too bad he didn't let it go at that. He might have made a good impression. Instead, he carried on in a poor imitation of English about stereotypes, and Condoleeza Rice, and how black corporate heads have more power than rappers.
But if, as it appears, this incident was a veiled discussion about black popular culture, then all of that is irrelevant. First, stereotypes are not the same as ignorant prejudice. Stereotypes are general impressions that people form from experience. As long as you keep in mind that there are individual exceptions, stereotypes can be valid if based on fair-minded observation. Having a general picture of how people in a subculture tend to behave is reasonable, and pretending that norms in all groups are the same is unreasonable. Stereotypes are wrong only if you automatically assume that every member of a group personifies them.
And if the subject is black popular culture, than Condi Rice and the black corner-office executives have nothing to do with it. They do not influence the people who listen to rap music. Yes, a media company like Time Warner has some responsibility in shaping public tastes, but they are going to record and promote what they think will sell, regardless of the race of the person at the top of the pyramid.
Most Americans (not only whites) would agree, I think, that a decadent and irresponsible popular culture has taken on too much of the vibe and standards of the underclass, and that our common life has become more crude as a result. If that's what O'Reilly thinks, he needs to say so, and not hide behind patronizing compliments on the table manners at Sylvia's.