By now, you've probably heard that National Public Radio fired their political analyst Juan Williams for comments he made on FOX news about Muslims. Williams was talking to Bill O'Reilly, who made some of the hosts of the daytime talk show The View hopping mad week before last when O'Reilly blamed 9/11 on all Muslims.
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Williams didn't say he blamed Muslims for the World Trade Center attack, like O'Reilly did. But he did say he wasn't above the stereotype of a Muslim as a terrorist. Here's what he said:
I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.
I've heard similar statements, especially when I start talking to some people. Often, it's women, not just white women, who lean into me and say in a low voice, "I know it's wrong, but sometimes when I'm on the train or walking down the street and I see a group of young black men, I feel scared. I don't want to think like that, but I do."
They're practically whispering because they know it's not polite. It's not a nice thing to think, especially in this day and age. They know it speaks to racism, and they know that's not okay.
I can't help thinking of a line from Uncommon Common Ground, the book that Equity blog has been urging us all to read for their National Conversation about Race. "One inconvenient truth is this: there is a disconnect between what Americans say about race in public, and what they think in private."
I have that underlined and circled in my copy of the book. What we'll whisper to a friend is very different than what we'll say at a dinner party. That's been labeled "political-correctness," but I think it's more along the lines of "lying."
When Chicago's media scene erupted with Joe the Cop's posts on a red line shooting, I had a conversation with Alden Loury, publisher of the magazine where I work, The Chicago Reporter.
Alden said that it seemed like every few months a news story emerged with someone - a celebrity, a politician, a media person - labeled as a racist for something they said. For a week or two, everyone analyzed them and took sides - either labeling that person as a racist or saying the person had been maligned.
"Does that really do anything to help the problem of race in this country?" Alden wondered aloud. "Or does it just make people afraid to say what they really think, so we all go on having these secret thoughts about each other that we never say."
A contributor on our Facebook page, Miriam Solon, said she wondered if NPR shouldn't have fired Williams for another reason: he wasn't a reporter for them, but just an analyst. Analysts are paid for their opinions, right?
Whether or not he was supposed to have an opinion, our obsession with never saying what we really think because it might be labeled as wrong might be stifling how we move forward on important issues like race, poverty, terrorism and immigration. As Matt Lewis at Politics Daily wrote, "the politically correct guide to debate often involves cutting off discussion, not encouraging more of it."
Williams said it himself, right before he made the comments he was fired for. "Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality," he said. The reality is, most Americans have some politically un-correct views on race and ethnicity. Lying about them isn't going to make them go away.
Photo credit: Pete Wright