O’Really? Bill O’Reilly’s Ongoing War on Facts (and Racial Justice)

Poor Bill O’Reilly. I mean, it’s not as if we should actually expect him to know anything about black people or black culture in America. This is the guy, you’ll recall, who was actually amazedamazed — a few years ago when he went to Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem, only to discover that black patrons of this venerable institution were respectful and didn’t harass wait staff by yelling things like, “Hey motherfucker, bring me some more iced tea!” Because apparently, that’s what he was expecting: crude epithets dished up with chitlins, cornbread, and purple drink, or perhaps a hostess who greets newcomers with “Yo momma’s so ugly” jokes while they wait for a seat.

Seriously, what do you expect from a guy who grew up in Levittown, on Long Island? This is a community, after all, which was established for whites only, due to the wishes of its developer. And although Bill insists he never received any of that white privilege he keeps hearing people speak of (as if it were tantamount to fairy dust) — this despite growing up in a middle class neighborhood from which black people were entirely excluded, in a home financed by a government-backed loan, also off-limits to blacks at the time — it certainly meant that his contact with folks of color was, shall we say, limited from the jump. Not a lot of black folks in his Catholic schools growing up either, and hanging out occasionally with Juan Williams really isn’t sufficient to fill a lifelong blind spot.

Anyway, and despite coming by his ignorance honestly, Bill’s latest attempt to explain black culture to the masses (or at least that part of it to which he refers as “ghetto culture”), demonstrated more than just his usual complement of asshattery. Indeed, it was a statement of such monumental and verifiable stupid — unlike many of his other assertions, which at least belong to the realm of sincere if naive opinion — that one can only assume his recitation of it signifies a deliberate attempt to smear, to demean and defame black people, and especially the black poor. Feeding subtle (or perhaps not-so-subtle) bigotry-enhancing stereotypes to an audience of millions is journalistic irresponsibility of the highest order, and yet, sadly, it is something O’Reilly does, secure in the knowledge that most of his supine audience will believe it, not simply because he says it, but because the images he spoons to them fit so neatly with their equally ignorant but well-established beliefs already.

To wit, a segment on O’Reilly’s July 28th FOX News program concerning the legalization of marijuana, in which O’Reilly slipped in the jab that “in certain ghetto neighborhoods, it’s part of the culture” for children as young as nine to smoke weed. Got it? Not simply that occasionally a pre-teen might smoke marijuana in such a place (no doubt true, as it would be among some white suburbanites from Long Island, like the one who proved to be the biggest weed dealer at my college), but that the practice is absolutely normative among the black and urban poor.

To say that such a belief is racist should be obvious: it generalizes about people of color in a way that holds those people of color in low regard as pathological, defective, dysfunctional and frankly, criminal, since smoking weed (ether at 9 or 90) is illegal in most places. But more than racist, the belief is also flatly wrong. In fact it is so wrong that O’Reilly’s explication of the argument suggests he has not even a passing familiarity with that new-fangled invention known as Google. For had Bill spent just a few minutes doing simple research, he could have discovered that far from a cultural norm among blacks, drug usage rates are roughly equivalent across racial lines.*

There are three primary sources on drug use among Americans, which look at slightly different populations in calculating their data. One is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the second is the Monitoring the Future report (MTF), issued by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Institutes of Health, and the third is the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Let’s look at those one at a time and see what they actually say.

SAMHSA estimates drug usage rates for all Americans, ages 12 and older, and occasionally breaks them down by ages 12-17, 18-25, and 26 and above. Drug usage rates for persons under 12 are so low for any racial group that literally no one even calculates numbers like that, let alone has ever demonstrated the “normalcy” of use for black children that age. There is simply no research, anywhere on the planet, which ratifies O’Reilly’s claim about black 9-year olds in the so-called ghetto.

In their most recent report, SAMHSA did not break out drug use numbers and rates by race and age combined, so unfortunately we are unable to see the racial usage differences for white and black youth who are 12-17, young adults 18-25 or adults 26 and older. Previous reports did provide this breakdown, and as I have noted in prior essays and books, typically demonstrated that white youth and black youth were equally likely to be current drug users in the youngest age group, whites were slightly more likely to be current users in the middle age group, and blacks were slightly more likely to be current users in the oldest age group, resulting in a rough equivalence between whites and blacks overall, in terms of drug use within the last 30 days.

In their most updated report, looking at data for 2012, SAMHSA only provides overall racial use data for all persons 12 and older. Looking at that data, we see racial differences to be sure, but they are small. So, for instance, roughly 9 percent of whites and 11 percent of blacks, 12 and older have used some form of illegal substance in the past 30 days, thereby making them what researchers call “current users.” Needless to say, if 89 percent of a particular group (in this case blacks) does not use illegal drugs of any kind, it is preposterous to claim that drug usage by that group is a cultural norm.

The MTF report looks at drug use among 8th graders, 10th graders and 12th graders. They find, much as with SAMHSA, that whites and blacks use illegal drugs at roughly the same rates. Among 8th graders, 6 percent of whites and 9 percent of blacks have used an illegal drug (mostly weed) in the past month; among 10th graders, 18 percent of whites and 20 percent of blacks are current users, and among high school seniors, the usage rates are the same for both groups at about 1 in 4. As for daily (which is to say, heavy) use, almost no whites or blacks in 8th grade smoke weed daily, only about 5 percent of whites and blacks in 10th grade do so, and only about 7 percent of each groups’ seniors get high every day.

The CDC suggests a slightly greater racial disparity, but even their data far from indicates drug use as a social or cultural norm for African American youth. Examining high schoolers in general, CDC notes that about 29 percent of black high schoolers have smoked weed in the past month, as have 20 percent of whites.

In New York, where O’Reilly lives and broadcasts, drug use rates among youth have long demonstrated very little if any difference between whites and blacks. According to the most recent data available (from 2009), in Manhattan and Staten Island, white youth are actually more likely than black youth to have used marijuana, while in Brooklyn and Queens black youth are slightly more likely to have done so. The same Borough-level trends hold for current users, with 28 percent of white high schoolers in Manhattan currently smoking weed, for instance, compared to only 18 percent of black high school students there. Nearly 1 in 11 white Manhattan youth have used cocaine too, (in either its powder or rock form), it is worth noting, compared to only 1 in 20 blacks.

But while some might see the national data and say O’Reilly’s claim was at least partially fair (after all, however slightly, black youth do seem to use drugs more often than whites), other data not mentioned by O’Reilly (or those who push the “black people are drug users” meme) demonstrates the fundamental fallacy in his logic.

Fact is, those same sources that show slightly elevated rates of drug use for black youth over white youth, also show significantly higher rates of alcohol use (and abuse) by white youth than black youth. But you won’t hear Bill O’Reilly opining that there is something cultural about white suburban communities that normalizes heavy drinking and alcoholism. So, for instance, according to SAMHSA, whites are 50 percent more likely than their black counterparts to drink underage (27 percent as opposed to 18), and more than twice as likely to binge drink. In fact, whites between 12-20 are just as likely to binge drink as blacks that age are to drink at all. According to the MTF report, although white and black 8th graders are equally likely to be current drinkers, by 10th grade, nearly 30 percent of whites are, compared to only 20 percent of blacks, and by 12th grade, fully 44 percent of white students are drinkers, compared to 28 percent of African Americans. Whites in both 10th and 12th grade are roughly twice as likely as their black counterparts to binge drink, which refers to drinking five or more drinks at one sitting.

According to the CDC, 36 percent of white high school students are current drinkers, compared to 30 percent of blacks, and white high schoolers are nearly twice as likely as their black peers to binge drink (23 percent versus 12). Interestingly, while only 1 in 63 black high schoolers have consumed 10 or more drinks at a time (truly massive binging), fully 1 in 14 whites in high school has, meaning that whites in high school are about 4.5 times more likely to have engaged in this clearly pathological (and so far as high school students are concerned, illegal) behavior.  Also worth noting: white youth according to all three sources have much higher rates of prescription drug abuse, but one doubts that O’Reilly has any intention of criticizing white parents for not better securing their Vicodin or Hydrocodone scrips from little Johnny and Susie, or proclaiming legal opioid abuse by such persons to be evidence of a deeper race-based cultural flaw.

According to a recent study conducted by researchers from Duke University, when examining substance abuse and dependence (not just usage rates), whites are nearly twice as likely as African Americans to present for such serious problems related to drugs and/or alcohol.

Far from a mere academic matter, O’Reilly’s lies about black drug use among young people feeds a dangerous and destructive mentality, which serves to legitimize racial profiling of such youth, their harassment by cops beholden to those same racialized suspicions, and their arrest for crimes that whites engage in with roughly equal frequency. By continuing to promote the connection between blackness and drug use — a connection so strong that one study found fully 95 percent of persons asked to envision a “typical drug user” said they envisioned a black person — O’Reilly gives license to racially-disparate enforcement of the law. In short, he gives cover to institutional racism.

Of course, at the same time O’Reilly feels qualified to weigh in on the cultural norms of a community in which he has spent exactly zero time, he also assures us that blacks are not actually treated more harshly for drug possession when compared to whites, or that if they are, such disparity is somehow justified by higher overall crime rates in urban areas. But in fact, and despite roughly equal rates of marijuana usage, blacks are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. Whether that is the result of deliberate racial targeting, or, as O’Reilly would have it, the simple and perhaps unintended outcome of saturation policing caused by higher crime rates (i.e., more cops in poor urban neighborhoods means they’ll uncover more crimes there, including drug possession), the outcome is the same: justice is not dispensed in a fair and equitable fashion. Whites doing the same crime with roughly equal frequency are able to get away with their illegality at much higher rates.

And of course, at least in places like New York, we know that the disparities in drug arrests are certainly the result of deliberate targeting, not happenstance. Under the city’s stop-and-frisk policies, which were in place from the late 1990s until just a year ago when they were struck down by the courts, black youth (and Latinos) were routinely targeted in ways that were disproportionate, even when you take into account higher crime rates in black communities. Overall, out of millions of stops (nearly 90 percent of them involving black or brown folks), drugs were found in fewer than 2 percent of all stops (and were actually less likely to be found on blacks than whites), and the racial makeup of a precinct predicted who was likely to be stopped three times better than the crime rate in the neighborhood. In fact, when it comes to drug crimes, stop rates were indeed correlated with reported drug crimes in various neighborhoods, but the correlation was negative. In other words, stops of blacks on suspicion of drug possession, were highest in neighborhoods with fewer reported drug crimes, rather than more. The NYPD was not responding to actual rates of crime; they were profiling on the basis of racial bias and false assumptions about who was most likely to be carrying contraband.

Until media talking heads, who have the potential to influence millions of people — including politicians, teachers, and law enforcement officials — are called to account for the spreading of disinformation, little will change. The conservative cognitariat, of which Bill O’Reilly is such a central and bellicose figure, must be held accountable for their incessant race-baiting and the spreading of false and defamatory information about youth of color and the communities in which they live. His lies and distortions, whether the result of simple ignorance or malicious intent, cannot be ignored or tolerated any longer.

(To join the call for O’Reilly to apologize and issue a correction of his egregious distortions regarding drugs and black youth, sign here).

*I realize that in O’Reilly’s defense, he would likely say that he was not speaking of blacks generally, or even the black poor, necessarily, but rather, only that portion of the black and black poor community that lives in so-called urban “ghettos.” As such, he might willingly grant the data presented here and agree that blacks, in general, do not use drugs as part of some cultural norm. But this dodge would be insufficient to acquit him of the charge of stoking racial resentment and stereotypes with his rhetoric, for the following reasons: 1) His statement about “ghetto” black folks still is not accurate according to any source that he can cite or that exists. I defy him, in fact, to produce one piece of scholarly research in support of his argument that it is normative in black, poor, urban communities for 9-year olds to smoke weed. In other words, he is still making up cultural arguments without evidence, due to his own prejudices and ignorance; 2) it is doubtless the case that a large number of listeners to his program (and Americans generally), equate so-called “ghetto” black folks with black folks more broadly, because sadly we tend to assume that a majority of African Americans live in such places (even though a distinct minority do). So to make this argument is to play into white prejudices about the larger black community, even if that were not one’s intent; and 3) let’s be honest, Bill O’Reilly has never in his professional life differentiated between the black community generally and black poor folks specifically when it comes to social pathology. Indeed he routinely attacks black entertainers (who are hardly poor) for encouraging everything from drug and alcohol use to out-of-wedlock pregnancy. O’Reilly no doubt believes that blacks generally are a tangle of pathology and cultural deficiency, and if I’m wrong about that, he should say so, clearly and without hesitation. Here’s betting he won’t.

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