Being Called a Liar by Bill O’Reilly is Like Being Called Wet by Rain: White Denial and Racism at the Missouri Town Hall Meeting

Apparently it doesn’t take much to get under the skin of conservative talk show hosts. First, there was Rush Limbaugh, attacking me for my comments earlier this week on CNN. He called me a liar for claiming that he had said President Obama hated white people, and he was even more inflamed by my suggestion that the founders of the country had believed in white supremacy. I answered his disingenuous critique, demonstrating the truth of both claims, and figured that would be the end of it.

But then came Bill O’Reilly, last night, uttering my name in a particularly smarmy and venomous way. He too called me a liar, this time for another part of my six minute interview with weekend host, Don Lemon. Although O’Reilly’s guest, professor Marc Lamont Hill tried to defend me from his attack, O’Reilly did as O’Reilly often does: talk over his guest and foreclose any possibility of serious dialogue.

Unlike the attack by Limbaugh, I would have been inclined to let this one go, because unlike the Limbaugh attack, this one was less about a demonstrable historical point worthy of clarification, and more about a “he said/she said” kind of thing. But because I have been bombarded by hateful e-mails this morning, apparently spurred by O’Reilly’s comments last night, and because I have a few extra minutes to spare, I’d like to offer clarification as to what I said, why it is no lie, and why O’Reilly’s position is untenable in the extreme.

First, and in a move suggesting the degree of dishonesty to which O’Reilly is prepared to stoop, he chose to identify me as a “self-proclaimed anti-racism activist.” Actually I don’t proclaim myself anything. I have a job description, just like anyone, and that happens to be it. I am no more self-proclaimed than he is, as a journalist: a title he gave himself, with no sense of irony, even when he worked at Inside Edition. Actually, on the show I was identified as an author, which I also am. Not sure why O’Reilly didn’t see fit to mention that, seeing as how he’s a journalist and all, and journalists are supposed to report facts, of which, my authorship of four books would normally qualify as one.

Anyway, O’Reilly, who carefully selected only one 15 second clip from an interview that had lasted about six minutes, was steamed by my description of what had happened a few days earlier at a Missouri health care town hall meeting, hosted by Senator Claire McCaskill. The basic facts are not in dispute: a black woman was assaulted by a white man, who tore up a poster of Rosa Parks, which the woman, Maxine Johnson had in her possession. I had mentioned the incident, but what had O’Reilly so upset was my claim that the attack had been racial, and my noting that there had been a sign there calling the President the n-word.

On this point, O’Reilly pounced, claiming that the n-word sign was merely alleged and that there had been no confirmation of it, presumably by photographic or video evidence. For me to mention it, therefore, was merely an attempt to inflame racial tension and inject race into a situation where it had previously not been present.

Fact is, there is no photo of the sign calling President Obama the n-word, to my knowledge. But it was reported at the time, by Ms. Johnson and her daughter. The description I heard was that it was a small sign, affixed to the shirt of one of the people in attendance, as if by tape or some other adhesive. I found the claim convincing for two reasons: first, I could see no logical reason for the two women to lie. Their story–of the assault and ripping of the Rosa Parks poster–was compelling enough without that additional detail. Secondly, the size and placement of the sign made sense, given the rules at the town hall event, which included a prohibition on holding up signs. Had the claim been of a poster-size sign, being held up by someone in attendance, I would have immediately discounted it, because of the rules, and because such a sign surely would have been seen by someone with a camera. But with a small sign, on someone’s body, it is entirely possible for such a thing to have escaped the eyes of news crews or intrepid iPhone photographers.

Normally, the procedure for discrediting eyewitnesses is to offer some compelling reason why their claims should be disbelieved. That is how witnesses are impeached, so to speak. So far, I have seen no such compelling evidence to discount the claims by Johnson and her daughter. The ones I’ve been offered are mere ad hominems, sent by political partisans. So, for instance, folks have written to tell me that Johnson is an Obama supporter, was planted by Obama in the meeting, or that she works for ACORN. As for the first of these, it appears true, but if that makes one a liar, then over half the country’s citizens are pathologically dishonest. As for the second, there is no evidence whatsoever that Johnson was planted. And so far as the ACORN charge goes, I have seen no evidence indicating her connection to the group, but even were it true, such a connection would hardly prove that she or her daughter were lying about the sign they claimed to see.

As for O’Reilly’s argument that the ripping of the Parks poster may not have been racist, this is worthy of some extended discussion, for it goes to the heart of the racial divide between whites and blacks in this country: a divide that makes it difficult–not impossible, but difficult–for white folks and black folks to understand each other, because we often experience things so very differently.

First, Bill suggested the attack on the poster could have been merely political, and not racial. In other words, perhaps the white man simply disagreed with Ms. Johnson’s political views, as demonstrated on the poster. Well, if it were a poster of a politician, say President Obama, one might say that such an argument made sense, and was well within the realm of possibility. But a poster of a civil rights legend? Rosa Parks’s visage does not symbolically represent any political position per se, except the one for which she fought: civil rights and racial equity. So if the attacker was putting forward political speech and not racial speech, the only conceivable political statement would have been a political statement against civil rights and racial equity. Which statement would be, of course, by definition, a racist statement.

O’Reilly then posited the possibility that the guy who ripped up the sign didn’t know who Rosa Parks was. Perhaps. Lots of white folks don’t, which says a lot about the quality of our educational system. But even if so, what does this leave us with? It would mean that he had ripped up a poster with a black woman’s face; a black woman he doesn’t even know; a black woman who could have been the mother of Maxine Johnson; a woman who may have died from lack of medical care, and thus, Ms. Johnson had wanted to bring the poster with her as a testament to her own pain. Would this attack on a random black woman be ipso facto any less racial? Of course not. And in any event, it’s hard to argue both points: that his act had been political, and then that he didn’t even know who she was.

Others have suggested that perhaps he was merely angry at her for breaking the rules and bringing a sign into an event where they were prohibited, but such a claim is hard to believe. She had the sign rolled up in front of her, having obeyed the instruction not to display it by holding it up in the event. Only when a journalist walked over to her and asked to see it did she unfurl it, and even then, on the chair in front of her, and not in such a way as to be obvious or disruptive. Plus, normally one does not display their deep and abiding regard for the “rules” by going and breaking even bigger rules: ya know, the ones that say you can’t assault people or destroy their property. In other words, it strains credulity to believe that this violent thug was simply trying to instill respect for proper decorum.

So what makes me so sure the incident was racial? Well aside from applying a little common sense, we have the logic of Occam’s Razor, which says that when you have competing theories of something, the simpler is probably the correct one. Frankly, it seems easier to conclude that a white man attacking a black woman and ripping up her poster of one of the nation’s leading civil rights’ icons was racial, than to believe it was some random act of meanness or perhaps an attempt to enforce rules about not having posters.

But even more to the point, O’Reilly’s position on this matter is indicative of how many whites view racism, and why whites and blacks so often disagree about basic matters that touch on race. As such, it is worth thinking through, not so much to correct Bill’s own misperceptions, but so as to engage in the more important discussion we need to be having about why folks often see the same set of facts through different lenses.

To O’Reilly, apparently, we can judge the racial aspect of an incident–and should do so–only by examining the intent of the person engaged in the action: i.e., the teller of the joke, the person engaged in the assault, the perpetrator. And so, since we don’t know for sure what was in the attacker’s head, we can’t say, or shouldn’t even suggest that his motivation was racial. To him, the way that the event is experienced by the target, the victim, the one receiving the treatment is irrelevant. But while a standard of mens rea–meaning literally, “guilty mind” and figuratively, “intent to commit a particular act”–may well be appropriate in a court of law, it is not necessarily the best standard for evaluating non-criminal issues, like whether or not a particular act is racist or has racial overtones. Fact is, events take on meaning, whether intended or not, based on a confluence of circumstances, context, setting, and other factors that the perpetrator may not understand, but which the target of a particular act understands all too well. So, for instance, the man who calls his female secretary “sweetie,” or “babe” may or may not intend to demean her as a woman. But surely most would not be surprised to learn that the target of that behavior would experience the event as demeaning, and for reasons having specifically to do with gender.

In this instance, and because it seems as though white folks are the only ones failing to see the racial element of this attack at the town hall, how might we try and understand the event? Well, how about this? How about we imagine, as white people, that we were, instead, Maxine Johnson. Or for that matter, any black person. We come into a public meeting, and very shortly are attacked by a white person. That white person rips up our poster of Rosa Parks: one of the nation’s most important civil rights icons. Then, hundreds of white people–who far and away outnumber people who are black like us in the room–begin to cheer, apparently heartened by his violent outburst. Is it really hard to imagine that in this situation, we might indeed experience this assault as racial? Would such a conclusion be even a little irrational? Would it flow only from some neurotic hypersensitivity? Really? Or might it be quite logical, given the totality of the situation? It seems to me that if one is being honest, one would have to acknowledge that the event could take on racial impact–and therefore constitute a racial injury–quite aside from what was in the head of all those white people.

So long as we insist on viewing racist injury only through the eyes of white folks, very little of anything will ever qualify for the designation. Not racial profiling (for which we always seem to find a ready excuse); not the racist rant by the police officer in Boston who called Henry Louis Gates a “banana-eating jungle monkey” (and then said that because he has black friends he wasn’t racist–and was believed by most conservative white folks, it appears, after saying it); not e-mails that show Obama as a witch-doctor, or pictures of the White House lawn with watermelons superimposed on it. Or posters with Obama pictured as, and referred to, as a monkey. Nope, in the eyes of those who created these images and sent them around, there was no racist intent at all. To Bill O’Reilly, apparently, and others like him, that settles it.

But to the rest of us–those of us who insist on applying a little basic common sense and rationality to our observations of everyday life, and who don’t reside in a state of white denial 24/7–those protestations of innocence mean nothing. We’ve heard them before. People of color have been hearing them for centuries. And they’re tied of it. Some of us white folks are too.

Tim Wise is the author of four books on racism. His latest is, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama

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