Bill O'Reilly's Offensive Remarks on Slavery Help Illuminate What is at Stake in this Election*
Bill O’Reilly’s comments yesterday on Fox News in reaction to Michelle Obama’s democratic convention speech, were profoundly demeaning, patronizing and injurious. Specifically, Michelle Obama acknowledged living every day in a house built by slaves.
His knee-jerk response? “Slaves that worked there were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802.”
With respect to a very obviously charged, poignant, and unsettled part of our history, what his comments help to unveil is not only his hubris and hard-heartedness on the matter, but also the far reaches of the ideology of white, Western European supremacy and its continuing justification for our country’s history of war, conquest, and colonization against indigenous people of which the brutal and degrading institution of chattel slavery was a significant part.
People think of race and racial nomenclature as natural, as a fact of existence. Yet these are inescapably modern terms today since none existed in Europe prior to the early 1600s. Nor were they present on this continent prior to Columbus' arrival. For millennia instead, aboriginal people identified themselves as members of specific clans, tribes, nations, or ancestries.
The very categories of "white" and “black” came into existence with the consolidation of slavery in the early-mid 1600s (Omi & Winant, 2014). Race—and the terms we casually use in speech as personal identifiers, hateful, prejudicial discourse, or terms of endearment—is a modern construct.
In the history of humanity, there has always been slavery unfortunately, but historically for millennia, no group ever enslaved members of a race. Instead, PEOPLE/OR A PEOPLE/OR PEOPLES were enslaved and not the members of any race because race did not exist as a concept and especially not for the purpose of classifying and categorizing humanity on all manner of characteristics (especially, notions of intelligence and ability).
So race emerges over time, sharing analytical and ideological affinity with Darwinism together with the idea of the "survival of the fittest" as a basis for hierarchy in society—the latter of which had earlier European antecedents in the ideological notion of “The Great Chain of Being.”
This phrase of "survival of the fittest" actually derives from English philosopher and political theorist, Herbert Spencer, and meets up with the ideologies of individualism and meritocracy that work in tandem to reduce economic, cultural, political, and social success of both individuals and groups to individuals’ hard work, talent, and investments in human capital. This is a power-neutral, power-evasive, succinct, sterilzed (dominant) narrative.
Society’s structure of opportunity—that even this story of the white house and Michelle Obama’s re-telling of it illustrates—privileges the voices of some over others regardless of how offensive they are, underscoring exactly how privilege can work not only as a weapon, but also as a shield for reactionaries and bigots in a racist society.
The concept of race therefore emerges historically precisely out of colonialism, the occupation of native lands, colonization, and slavery and it finds regular expression today in everyday ways, but most visibly in high-profile arenas and struggles. Take, for instance, curriculum battles such as those at the legendary Texas State Board of Education, as well as in the dismantling of Mexican American Studies in the Tucson Unified School District by the Arizona State Legislature in the form of House Bill 2281 passed in 2010. To wit, many of us are currently involved in a battle with Texas' State Board of Education challenging the adoption of a racist, secondary-level, textbook published by a former SBOE member that is currently under consideration by the board (see link for news on this unfolding story).
Social Darwinism is also embodied in our state and nation’s high-stakes, standardized testing system that despite stubborn and consistent correlations to race/ethnicity and poverty is content to disproportionately promote the ascendancy of white, middle class children on the basis of such narrow measures that test score results represent. Before testing, tracking students into high and low tracks was the primary sorting mechanism through which the rewards of schooling were (and still are) allocated
It also finds expression in minority group members themselves that similarly subscribe to the negative images by the dominant group toward them, making them feel ashamed about their origins, dialects, and native tongues. The scholarly literature calls this “internalized oppression” or “internalized racism.” I have written about such things in my own work.
A vexed history involving battles over school finance, segregation, and representation in the curriculum are arguably the most enduring and stable expressions of struggles over white privilege wherein challenges to white hegemony in arenas where whites (especially white men) dominate are either flatly ignored, consist of piecemeal, token remedies, or met with poisonous invective—such as that spewed by Bill O’Reilly that he, for the most part, has never had to justify.
According to this (il)logic, O’Reilly not only never risks his job, but he and Fox news get further empowered to continue silencing constructive discourse on race that may be good for ratings, but that are nevertheless an obstacle to the goal of inter-ethnic and inter-racial dialogue, peace and harmony. Instead, he injects cynicism and a mean spirit into the atmosphere.
The scientific racism that grew out of Darwinism and individualism generated an extensive body of scholarship that was widely discredited in the aftermath of World War II. It nevertheless regularly resurfaces and holds sway among a small, but dedicated segment of eugenics scholars, publications, websites, etc.
In Texas, the State Board of Education social studies curriculum battles reveal the presence of a neo-Confederate agenda that seeks to elevate the likes of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate cause even as they decry the inclusion of women and minorities in the curriculum (especially see Erekson, 2014).
The most well-known, recent manifestation of scientific racism regards Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s 1994 book, The Bell Curve. It argues for a genetic explanation regarding the black-white IQ gap, setting off one of the most contested debates over the racist notion of the heritability of these measured differences.
The motivations to keep this kind of “institutionalized deficit thinking” alive are not only their profitability—as this story of the building of the White House by slave labor directly implies—but also as a sufficient rationale for the dominant group’s maintenance of power and privilege.
Racist demagogues like Bill O’Reilly, together with legions of others who are pretty much okay with our highly uneven status quo arguably have an emotional commitment to institutionalized racism. Or, to use Dr. George Lipsitz’ (2006) words from his classic work on white privilege, a “possessive investment in whiteness.” In addition to the sensibilities of people of color, decent human beings, and hard-working Americans, what gets sacrificed by this possessive investment in whiteness is a deeper engagement with a topic that could serve as a bridge to difference, mutual respect, and understanding.
It would be interesting to know, for example, the impact of this extraordinary experience of building the White House and other buildings on the slaves themselves, particularly in the context of working with some “free blacks, whites, and immigrants” that O’Reilly mentions. Who were they? Where did they come from? How were they changed by this experience?
And what about West African aesthetics and how this may have found expression in architecture? Was it ever a factor in design for the monumental structures that draw so much admiration world wide? This is clearly difficult work since many records weren’t kept; however, this memory may reside in folks songs, journals, diaries, music, or in oral narratives handed down generationally. We need to promote this kind of work in our universities and communities through story-telling and archival projects in order to preserve our respective histories.
Our children could also take time to reflect on, to think about what Michelle Obama—instead of Bill O'Reilly—said. Her spirit and intention opens possibilities for great, imaginative discussions on what could have been, and most especially, the strength of African American families to survive and struggle in myriad ways against slavery. Volumes of literary works and scholarship on slavery already exists that every generation needs to engage.
So for O'Reilly to position himself through his blatantly racist and condescending comments that “slaves that worked there were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802," is minimally to be an apologist for slavery, and maximally, to inadvertently position himself as an imperialist, enslaving conqueror looking down on Michelle Obama and the rest of us who were forced to reflect, however "inconveniently," on the fact of this massively important history that is our collective history in her public address.
The ideology of white supremacy is clearly one to which O'Reilly is wed and upon which he and others—Fox News included—thrive. And it is precisely this supremacist speech, thinking, and ideology—together with an emotional investment in whiteness—that is at stake in this election.
July 28 Reflection
Ok, so how do we get around this possessive in whiteness? How do we as a society get around this? Well, it's asking those in power and that support current constellations of economic, political, social, and cultural power to join the human race and to at least listen to demands and grievances that promote human and civil rights, peace, dignity, and domestic tranquility. Plus, if it matters, it'll be great for profits, too, to go in this direction.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, this gets accomplished not by evading history and being dismissive of others' narrative power and most particularly, extraordinary, much-admired women like Michelle Obama. Rather, one must face it directly. And who better to mediate this than our primary, secondary, and higher education faculty, researchers, and practitioners throughout the system in partnership with our community-based organizations and our schools districts, as well as our colleges and universities?
Falta de respeto, interpreted as a lack of respect that is deeply felt, is what we call it in my community.
We get there by researching, archiving, teaching, and sharing our very profound and complex stories and histories in relation to this continent. We get there through ethnic studies, area studies, humanities, social studies, history, sciences, education, and wherever possible. Rather than through blindness, we get there through class, color, gender, culture, and power consciousness We get there by connecting to the grassroots in our schools, churches, civil rights organizations, unions, professional associations, political party and non-partisan organizations, nonprofit sector, and beyond.
It is a way of knowing and being in the world. It is about values and the rearing of our children and grandchildren with intention in a loving family and community, and with a good and clear sense of direction for a brighter future not only for ourselves but for all of humanity.
We, of course, all see the thinning of hatred's wall. However, we remain hopeful that despite all the hate-mongering, a spirit of good will, constructive dialogue, open-mindedness, cultural respect, and peace in our families, will prevail.
Erekson, K. (Ed.). (2012). Politics and the history curriculum: The struggle over standards in Texas and the Nation. Springer.
Herrnstein, R. J., & Murray, C. (2010). Bell curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life. Simon and Schuster.
Lewis, D. (July 27, 2016). The White House Was, in Fact, Built by Slaves: Along with the Capitol and other iconic buildings in Washington, D.C. smithosonian.com
Lipsitz, G. (2006). The possessive investment in whiteness: How white people profit from identity politics. Temple University Press.
Obama, M. (July 25, 2016). Democratic National Convention speech. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZNWYqDU948
Omi, M., & Winant, H. (2014). Racial formation in the United States. Routledge.