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Giving O'Reilly's Soft Bigotry a Break

By Clarence Page

Does ignorance about race make you a racist? That boiling question bubbles at the heart of the controversy that Fox News star Bill O'Reilly's kicked up with his poorly received compliments of black diners in a New York restaurant.

My answer is, no, ignorance about race does not always make you a racist, but it can make you sound like one.

That's O'Reilly's problem. O'Reilly has been vilified recently by the liberal-leaning Web site Media Matters for America for insinuating how surprised he was to discover how (gasp!) civilized black folks behaved while dining in Sylvia's, one of the (double gasp!) historically black Harlem neighborhood's best-known restaurants.

"I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City," he marveled. "I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship."

Yup, they had knives, forks and everything! Just like white folks!

"It was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people (who) were sitting there," he said, "and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn't any kind of craziness at all."

Nope, no lap dancing, either.

"'There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, "M-F-er, I want more iced tea!" O'Reilly said, sounding almost disappointed.

No, ignorance about race might not make you a racist. It only makes you ignorant. That's why I think O'Reilly deserves a break. When someone is ignorant you should try to teach them. Instead, a lot of otherwise good-hearted, fair-minded and charitable people want to tar and feather the M-F-er.

Peace, people. I know O'Reilly. I've argued with him about various topics on his radio and TV shows. I relish a good "gotcha" moment against inflated egos as much as anyone does. But I also believe that this Sylvia's kerfuffle is a bum rap.

What did O'Reilly say that was so wrong? Only the sort of thing he usually says on the air, which is to restate the obvious with great passion, like an adolescent who thinks he is the first person to ever think of what he is telling you.

"The band was excellent, but they were dressed in tuxedoes, and this is what white America doesn't know, particularly people who don't have a lot of interaction with black Americans," said O'Reilly later in the show, describing the civility of an Anita Baker concert at Radio City Music Hall. "They think that the culture is dominated by Twista, Ludacris and Snoop Dogg."

You see? In the context of a lengthy chat with author Juan Williams, a black National Public Radio reporter and Fox News commentator, O'Reilly wasn't trying to sound racist. Quite the opposite, he actually was criticizing all of those white people who don't know many black folks except for those they see in the media and don't know what they're missing.

What O'Reilly doesn't seem to understand is the weariness that black Americans feel over constantly being compared to our community's worst role models while white people want constantly to be judged by their best.

That's a big reason why it seems curious that O'Reilly, after years of roiling up public outrage against raunchy gangsta rappers and other frightening figures, suddenly expresses what sounds like genuine surprise that some black people are not scary at all. At worst, O'Reilly appears to be afflicted with what President Bush calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

But that's OK. How else is O'Reilly, me or anybody else going to learn anything if we don't make a few boneheaded mistakes once in a while? My greater fear than hearing O'Reilly talk himself into a politically incorrect hole is the silence of people who are afraid to say anything about race for fear of offending someone. We need more candid talk about race and class these days, not less.

Besides, look at his upbringing. Through no fault of his own, he came from a socially isolated and economically isolated background. He calls himself "working class" in his first book, "The O'Reilly Factor," although compared to my factory laborer dad in Ohio, O'Reilly's family was well-to-do.

He grew up in white middle-class Levittown, Long Island. Racial, social and economic segregation distanced him from major segments of America's diversity. Liberals, of all people, should avoid blaming the victim. Like other socially handicapped folks, O'Reilly is a product of his environment. To borrow a line from "West Side Story," "He's depraved on account of he's deprived!"

Nevertheless, let's give O'Reilly credit for trying to widen his horizons. After all, it turns out, he was dining that night at Sylvia's with the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has made reeducating white folks his life's work.

Does that dinner date surprise you? It surprised me. Who would guess that, after railing against the Revs. Sharpton and Jesse Jackson as some sort of race hustlers and poverty pimps, the Big O from Levittown takes the A-train up to Harlem after work to go cattin' around with Rev. Al? Hey, that's show biz. Don't take it personally. Or seriously.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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