Bill O'Reilly, the popular talk show host for television's Fox News, is a tall, sharply dressed man with clear convictions and an aggressive style. Though he eschews the word conservative--"I am not a conservative, I am an independent thinker"--his conclusions and his convictions consistently reflect the far right end of the American political spectrum.

I have been a guest on The O'Reilly Factor a few times, and I like him. He has a twinkle in his eye and a graciousness about his manner even as he pursues his narrowly defined agenda. His supporters cheer him. His detractors find his aggressiveness rude and overbearing. My sense is that he articulates well his point of view, which is a legitimate part of the American political landscape.

However, when Bill O'Reilly had the Rev. Al Sharpton on his program recently, his rhetoric did, I believe, fall below the level of political legitimacy. Indeed, it revealed an attitude that I believe is blatantly racist. It reminded me of that embarrassing episode in 1988 when Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder attributed the competitive excellence of African American athletes to "selective breeding."

The facts are these. Al Sharpton had made some public comments about the lack of enthusiasm among black Americans for the war in Afghanistan and the issue of terrorism itself. O'Reilly felt that this attitude was unpatriotic and should be challenged publicly, so he invited Sharpton to be a guest on his program. O'Reilly did not appear to recognize that terror is not something new to black Americans. They have been kidnaped, bought, sold, whipped, and lynched during their years as part of the United States of America. They have lived in a society in which no laws were present to protect them against these terrorist acts. Instead, the courts of this land and the law enforcement agencies were until very recently overwhelmingly in the service of the perpetrators of these crimes.

Taking a leaf from the pages of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, O'Reilly suggested that Sharpton's less than enthusiastic support for the war was downright un-American, perhaps even treasonous. He was incensed that any American, black or white, might not view this terrorist attack in the vivid two categories that O'Reilly understands--right and wrong.

Interrupting Sharpton regularly, as he does every guest, O'Reilly demanded a yes or no answer to what he regarded as his ultimate test of truth. "Are black people better off today in America than they are in Africa?" The assumption behind such a question is that blacks should be thankful that they were forcibly enslaved, since it proved to be good for them.

Al Sharpton responded defensively, but he appeared not to grasp the full racist flavor of the question. Instead, he began to explain why Africans are still undeveloped by western standards. He reminded O'Reilly that Africa has been dominated by Europeans, for most of the last 200 years, and that Africa's resources have thus not been used to raise the standard of living of Africans but to line the pockets of their colonial masters. That was Sharpton's defense. It was weak and almost apologetic.

O'Reilly would have no part of this argument, so he pressed his original question demanding a yes or not answer: "Would American blacks say they are better off in this country with all of its shortcomings than they would be if they still lived in Africa?"

I have heard the assumptions behind this question before, but not for a long time. It was stated regularly during the 1930s when I was a child in the segregated South. The institution of slavery and its bastard stepchild, segregation, had been justified on the basis of the same mentality that made O'Reilly's question possible.

In the 19th century, slave holders used this line of reasoning to assert the nobility of slavery. Slavery offered to those they then called "savage Africans" a chance "to live in civilization." Slavery, it was said, had even given Africans a chance to be Christians. It was therefore beneficial. In their minds these results kept slavery from being evil. That mentality was nothing but racism seeking justification.

O'Reilly was using this same shameless tactic. Not even his pleasant smile or clever use of words could conceal his latent racism. If Sharpton answered this question with by saying, "Yes, Africans are clearly better off today in America than they are in Africa," he would have been agreeing to this ancient tactic of allowing white people to pretend that first slavery and later segregation, were actually beneficial to the black population. But if he had said, "African Americans are not better off in this country," he would have been slammed by O'Reilly and his supporters as un-American and would probably have been invited to return to Africa. It was a white version of the love it or leave it argument.

Bill O'Reilly and Al Sharpton are both the children of immigrants--one from Ireland, the other from Africa. The primary difference between their family histories is that Sharpton's ancestors did not choose to immigrate. They did not come to seek a better life; they were forced to come to make life better for European immigrants like O'Reilly. Given this history, why should there not be a massive residual negativity still present in the black community? When that history is coupled with the power of racism still present in our nation, which still relegates a large number of America's African population to the bottom 20% of our socio-economic system, it is easy to understand why poor blacks have not yet developed a great sense of ownership in America, an emotion that is intrinsic to the psyche of flag waving Euro-Americans. That is why the black population for whom Al Sharpton is the leader cannot yet fully identify with the American dream.

If O'Reilly were to interview the CEO of American Express or the CEO designate of AOL Time Warner, both of whom are African-Americans, one might find O'Reilly's outrage about Sept. 11 similarly reflected. Those at the top of the economic ladder are fully and successfully assimilated. But Sharpton's constituency is not made up of the CEO level of American society. His followers are working class people, who have not been offered a leg up, so that they might climb to new opportunities.

For O'Reilly to attack this black leader with a challenge to his patriotism and to suggest if he does not love this country he ought to return to Africa is simply unacceptable. Perhaps O'Reilly needs to remember that black Americans were the primary group who gave their lives in the service of their country in Vietnam, while white young people were protesting with burned draft cards.

O'Reilly's smile is not sufficiently deep to hide the prejudice that marks his soul. He embarrassed himself in this episode and he embarrassed the Fox network. He owes black Americans an apology.

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