Bikini Liberalism: Juan Williams, Implicit Bias and the Trouble With NPR

I’ve never been a fan of Juan Williams. Far too chummy with his FOX News colleagues and too eager to attack longstanding civil rights leaders in the name of supposedly courageous political “independence,” Williams is one I have never thought to defend before.

But today such a defense is deserved. Williams, it turns out, has been done a supreme disservice by his other employer, National Public Radio, and it is a disservice to which the harshest condemnation should be applied.

For those not up on the story, its contours are simple enough: On Monday, Williams appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s show to discuss the previous week’s flap on The View, where O’Reilly had bellowed that “The Muslims killed us on 9/11” as justification for opposing the building of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” During their conversation about Bill’s outburst — which had prompted hosts Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg to walk off stage — Williams admitted to O’Reilly that he is often nervous on planes if he sees persons who are identifiably Muslim. Although he went on to caution O’Reilly, and presumably those watching, about ascribing to all Muslims the terrorist tendencies of an infinitesimally small few — so, in other words, he wasn’t endorsing the fear to which he himself sometimes falls prey, but rather merely noting it honestly — the full context of his comments mattered not to the folks at NPR. On Wednesday they fired him, explaining that statements such as those he had offered on O’Reilly were “inconsistent” with their “editorial standards and practices.”

Yet what had Williams done, exactly? He acknowledged his own biases, and then explained the fallacy embedded therein. He was being honest, and in so doing, demonstrating an important fact that the nice white liberals who predominate at NPR try to deny, especially for themselves. Namely, that even the best of us can be taken in by racism, by religious bias, by ethnic chauvinism, by prejudice. No matter our liberal bona fides, the bottom line is this: advertising works, whether for selling toothpaste, tennis shoes, or stereotypes.

Putting aside for a moment the irony – after all, much of the most crass anti-Muslim invective has been provided by the very people at FOX who pay Williams’s bills – the point remains: no one can completely avoid ingesting some of that to which we’re subjected when it comes to racial or religious “others.” Years of research bears out this fact, indicating that wide majorities of us have internalized implicit biases against all types of people: African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, women, LGBT folks, persons with disabilities, and others. Not because we are bad people, let alone bigots, but because we’re imperfect beings who despite being pretty decent, nonetheless can find ourselves stuck in the cognitive traps laid for us by the larger culture.

The only difference between Juan Williams and the people who fired him is this: Williams is honest enough to admit his own damage. And importantly, what the research on this subject tells us is that it is precisely those persons who are able to see and acknowledge their biases who are the most likely to challenge themselves, and try valiantly not to act on them. In other words, it is the Juan Williams’s of the world whose self-awareness in this regard will minimize the likelihood of discriminatory behavior. Meanwhile, it’s the liberals who deny to their dying breath that they have a “racist bone in their bodies,” or who swear they “never see color,” or insist that they are open-minded, forward thinking and free of prejudice, who are often unable to see how their internalized biases effect them, and move them around the chessboard of life without them even realizing it. Frankly, those are the ones from whom racial and religious “others” probably need the most protection.

If his ex-colleagues at NPR who now preen as ethical superiors, above the base instincts of we lesser mortals, were to sit and take the Implicit Association Tests developed by leading psychologists for the purpose of ferreting out subconscious biases, I have no doubt that most would be found to harbor the same prejudices to which Williams has confessed. But liberalism of the type that rules the day at NPR – what we might call “bikini liberalism,” which involves just enough liberality so as to cover up the socially unacceptable parts – requires no such introspection. All they need to know is that Williams is buddies with that awful blowhard O’Reilly, and works for FOX. Case closed. They’ve never much liked his gig at FOX, and now they have found a reason to sever ties with him.

Fair enough. But in the process of their self-righteous shedding of the one who told the truth, we should not allow them to pretend they do so in the name of high-minded, unbiased principle. They do not. They do so only as a way to maintain the white liberal pretense: that racism and other forms of bias are only problems for those people over there, but never for us. We voted for Obama. We have a Celebrate Diversity sticker on our car, or one of those neat Coexist stickers, where the letters are all made out of different religious symbols. We’re better than that. And we can’t sully ourselves by associating with someone who admits that occassionally even they turn out to be flawed, and fragile, which is to say human.

Bikini Liberalism indeed. Or better yet, perhaps we should just call it what it is — dishonesty — and be done with it.

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