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Juan Williams, NPR, and the Nature of Bigotry

Juan Williams, NPR, and the Nature of Bigotry

Amidst the furor that has erupted over NPR’s termination of Juan Williams’s contract, supposedly due to remarks he made in an interview with Bill O’Reilly about Muslims, Williams himself is no doubt weeping all the way to the bank.  Faster than one can say “fair and balanced” FoxNews offered Williams a three-year, $2 million contract.  Oh, please don’t throw me in the briar patch!

Much is and will be debated about whether Williams’s comments — that he gets “nervous” when passengers in “Muslim garb” board his plane — rise (or sink) to the level of bigotry and, if so, if NPR was right to let him go.  Apparently NPR has had issues, both philosophical and contractual, with Williams prior to this incident.  Williams has made injudicious decisions and offensive comments before — he defended Clarence Thomas against Anita Hill’s accusations and he described Michelle Obama as “Stokley Carmichael in a designer dress” (if Williams worked for me, I’d have fired his ass for that one).  But is he a bigot?

Williams has defended his comments by saying he was expressing feelings, not opinion. His contention that he can’t be a bigot because he’s written books about the civil rights movement is laughable, but in the interview, he did go on to note that the actions of the few should not taint the character of the many — such as attributing the Oklahoma City bombing to “Christians.” 

Most of us are aware that flying is statistically safer than driving on the interstate but it doesn’t feel that way, probably because when we’re in a car we have the illusion of control.  A lot of things about airplanes scare me: middle seats, shrieking babies, seatmates who snore loudly or cough wetly, turbulence.  And yes, I’m afraid of being in the wrong little metal cylinder at the wrong time, of becoming a random victim of terrorism.

Those this-can’t-be-happening images of the second plane crashing into the second tower are seared in my memory bank as are the photos of the hijackers’ faces.  Say the word “hijacker” to me and I don’t immediately envision someone trying to get to Cuba.  I see those 19 specific Muslim faces.  Say “terrorist” and the image that comes to my mind is not that of someone in the IRA.  I wish I didn’t have these visceral associations — I loathe them.  I make sure I never forget that the second most horrific terrorist attack in the United States was carried out by someone who looked like “Paramilitary Ken.”  Our instinctive knee-jerk responses to people, places and events arise from emotional experience, and for me, as I’m sure for many others, the coverage of 9/11 invoked deep feelings — it became an emotional reality.  Does that make me a bigot?

It’s not possible to perceive every human being we encounter as a unique individual — we group, categorize and make unconscious assumptions based on a host of visual and verbal cues and the spectrum of our experiences.  Often our first response is to react rather than act; if bigotry is defined by those instinctive reactions, then we’re all bigots.

Bigotry is intolerance toward people who hold different views, especially on matters of politics, religion or ethnicity — and the point is, it’s not instinctive. Bigotry is a function of consciousness, of choice and action. I admit it, I’m intolerant of Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell and Michele Bachmann — damn straight.  I’m judgmental about a lot of things: people who abuse children or animals, BP executives, men in thongs.  Those prejudices are deliberate on my part, visceral feeling refined by rationality.  They are my choices — I own them.

My instinctive, instant responses don’t define who I am but what I am: a human animal with a part of my brain in full reptilian mode, constantly vigilant for danger and ready to command me to run or fight.  If I’m walking home late at night and a young Hispanic man approaches me, I might very well feel a frisson of fear (in spite of the fact that, in my neighborhood, he’s more like to be a member of the MIT Computer Club than La Mara Salvatrucha).  If somebody who looks like Mohammed Atta is sitting across the aisle, I might very well experience a momentary qualm.  Doesn’t mean I have to credit that response.  Doesn’t mean I can’t put my heart and mind in gear and dismiss those feelings for what they are and understand them for what they are not.

Is Juan Williams a bigot?  Maybe he is but I don’t think we can know that based on the comment that got him fired.  Could NPR have handled the situation with more finesse?  Absolutely.  And certainly this incident raises serious questions about Williams’s judgment: prefacing his admission with “I’m not a bigot” is questionable at the very least.  And supposing that he could have any kind of reasonable, thoughtful conversation with Bill O’Reilly is just plain stupid.

This incident raises many questions beyond whether Williams was wrongfully terminated.  It raises questions about the role of commentators in the media, about the difference between personal and informed opinion, about the degree that political correctness drives our national debate about critical, and critically sensitive subjects.  It asks when free speech becomes offensive speech, and when so, what, if anything, should be done.  

Don’t cry for Juan Williams.  Obviously he has landed on his feet (and in a cushy spot where his “liberal” voice can help FoxNews perpetuate its cant of unbias).  If you must cry, cry that there are people out there who will heed Bill O’Reilly’s call for NPR’s federal funding to be slashed (hey, Bill, what about the tax-deductible Chamber of Commerce acting to influence the upcoming election?).  Cry for the fact that we cannot seem to have a compassionate, reasoned national conversation about anything.  Cry about the complicated, maddening, horrible and beautiful nature of being human.  But don’t cry for Mr. Williams.  

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119 comments

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7:04PM PDT on Nov 5, 2010

I don't really like the term bigots but I feel we all have prejudices we cannot help. It's a part of what makes us human.

I find it interesting, though, that the liberal leaning NPR spawned someone who would even think of working for Fox. Most people who work for public radio or television are not the world's best paid and do it out of a sense of integrity.

So, yeah, NPR could have handled it differently. They couldn't, however, afford to keep him on.

1:31PM PDT on Nov 5, 2010

Lots of people fight for civil rights for 'their' minority but are still biased against other minorities.

Us Pagans get bashed by blacks and Jews, and Gays all the time.

Just because you work for civil rights for one group doesn't mean you can't be a racist, sexist, bigot against other groups.

6:40AM PDT on Nov 5, 2010

Oh dear! I grew up in Virginia, and while I did have an awareness of the provenance of that quote, it had become in my family simply a statement meaning something like 'the thing you think you're doing to hurt me is really gonna help me so please just do it!" In other words we totally co-opted the tale to our own ends and in doing so lost track of its history. I meant nothing more than that but it was insensitive and I apologize.

8:28PM PDT on Oct 25, 2010

I'm sorry, but did a white writer really start this piece by using a reference to a creepy american folk tale with a tar baby in it to talk about a black reporter's current situation? I'll need to scrape my jaw off the floor to keep reading.

11:48AM PDT on Oct 25, 2010

@ Ann M. The Washington Post is a privately held organization. That is the difference between NPR and all other news agencies. NPR is duty bound to remove all bias from news reporting.

11:47AM PDT on Oct 25, 2010

In business, which this was & is more about, profits from these two events w/ employees of Fox B N, The View & NPR have generated a great deal of income for all the attention drawn to them. Advertisers know that a station is watched or listened to is a better place for exposure of their product. Unfortunately NPR's CEO & Williams & all others involved have distracted many people in the USA from what needs more attention at this time: VOTING on the political issues for the counting of the ballots taking place this November.

Remember that there is a lot of $ gained by NPR as well as Fox and associates by such controversy. Don't let us be sheep or lemmings drawn over the cliff in masses by such dramatic things. For your own sake be educated to stand far away to view from a distance these woods of controversy. Remember too that trees grow naturally to fall as most trees do eventually unless they are cut from the forest and then need replanting by the seeds they leave behind.
I have worked outside a few years from my beloved USA and looked back within my country all those years. I have returned to USA to look at the changes now looking outward again. I am fortunate that I can see there is more to all of this than most may know....just know it's ''what is done more than what is said like the words of the song "Momma's Blues" which can be found online just like "This IS America" which is extremely important right now. That song has a true message of casting y

8:54AM PDT on Oct 25, 2010

ALL reporters are biased! I read the Washington Post each day and there are quite a few opinions I know are not factual reporting but the slanted thoughts of the reporters; so I know you print your opinion and not get fired.
I think we have become politicallly correct lunatics. If you voice, or write, how you really feel, well, you are a bigot.
Let's face it - this is America! We're built that way. I'll bet to this day when Blacks move in, White America winces. When Latinos come to the neighborhood, Blacks and Whites wince. And heaven forbid, a family in muslim garb. Whoa, run for the hills! This would be amusing if it were not so true.
No matter what your bar room or blog rantings are, check out who your friends are (the ones you invite into your home to meet your family and other friends) and get back to me.

7:51AM PDT on Oct 25, 2010

As a publicly funded entity, NPR has a duty to all citizens. Once Williams made his comments he was no longer credible as a fair and unbiased reporter, period.

6:58AM PDT on Oct 25, 2010

Mr. Williams benefitted from his comments more than he should, and he and FOX deserve each other. Good riddance!

4:30AM PDT on Oct 25, 2010

I can see his point. I get a little nervous too BUT that's not just due to terrorism (because as far as I'm concerned we have terrorists in our own government -see Bush administration, republicans) but also because I am an Atheist and a woman, so Mormons, Christians, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists, etc all have that effect on me. Muslims just sometimes are easier to spot.

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