People like Bill O’Reilly call upon people to raise themselves up while helping keep a foot on their necks.
Conservatives like O’Reilly do have some kernels of truth on their side. They rightly think people should develop good character, including virtues such as discipline and responsibility for oneself. And they are rightly concerned to assure that social policies don’t discourage people from developing such virtues.
But after those kernels of truth, their map of the world is dominated by a river of denial.
First, as Jon Stewart pointed out in his confrontation with O’Reilly, they deny how much their own ascent was boosted by the advantages their culture gave them. As Chris Hayes put it in his October 16 segment on the O’Reilly/Stewart confrontation, there are “two types of people–those who recognize they’re standing on something built to help them, and those who believe they are natural giants.”
(Hayes cited a poll conducted by researchers at Cornell University in 2008, asking people if they had ever used government social program. 57% said no, but the researchers established that 94% of those people were mistaken and had used at least one. On average, they’d benefited from four.)
In his effort to get Bill O’Reilly to acknowledge “white privilege,” Jon Stewart focused on the advantages O’Reilly got from growing up in the new, post-war, middle-class community of Levittown. It was a community that supported O’Reilly’s becoming the so-called “self-made man” that he is.
Those advantages amount to “white privilege,” Stewart argued, because the town was closed to black families (until a federal housing law passed in the late 1960s forced those gates open).
The right-wingers are eager to scold blacks for not developing a culture of responsibility. But if you want people to develop the virtues of discipline and responsibility, it is folly – or perhaps hypocrisy – not to be equally concerned that the society provides those people the opportunities to reap the rewards to which those virtues are supposed to lead.
O’Reilly seemed to think that the exclusion of blacks from Levittown – which he conceded was “unfair” – was ancient history. No longer relevant to today’s world.
But no honest appraisal of American racism would support that conclusion. Jon Stewart referred to the “residues” of that discrimination,. But of course what’s residual is far more than the lingering effects of that past era of legal, institutionalized racism.
The exclusion of blacks from Levittown was not the fault of particular individuals choosing to institute racist policies. It was a reflection of the broad American reality of whites’ anti-black bigotry . At the time Levittown was built, FHA underwriters warned that “even the presence of one or two non-white families” could undermine property values. It seems that, anticipating the “white flight” seen in later decades,” the exclusion of blacks was perhaps a requirement for the success of Levittown, and a reflection of the pervasive white rejection of living together with blacks on the same plane.
If that’s so, it is hardly realistic to imagine – and we have plenty of evidence to know otherwise – that just because federal law broke open that particular barrier, that the reservoir of white bigotry automatically got drained from elsewhere on the American landscape. Racism has diminished, surely, but it is hardly ancient history.
Blacks simply do not have the same opportunities as whites in America. To deny that is, at best, folly.
It is likewise folly to point to particular individuals who do manage to succeed against the odds and declare this proves that all blacks do likewise if they just buckled. That makes as much sense as to say that all of us could match the time of the guy who wins the race.
This is not Lake Wobegon, and we cannot all be exceptional.
It is true that black culture has its problematic areas around some of the issues that conservatives like O’Reilly stress. (The black leaders I’ve known – both secular and religious–recognize those problems and work hard to cultivate in their communities the ethics of discipline, determination, and responsibility.)
But it’s unclear whether these conservatives like O’Reilly really want to help that culture of responsibility to develop, or whether they just enjoy the excuse to beat up on an oppressed people, as their kind have been doing in America for centuries.
If they really do want to help foster that culture of responsibility, these conservatives should be working to create the opportunities that will assure that those virtues get rewarded with a piece of the American dream.
Which brings us to the still broader issue with which we should be confronting people like Bill O’Reilly: not just white privilege, but class privilege.
The problems of irresponsibility, lack of discipline, deterioration of family structure, have also grown more evident in recent decades in those parts of white society that are in the lower half of the economic spectrum. And again, it should be no surprise–if we recognize that responsibility grows best on a foundation of opportunity.
In the decades that Bill O’Reilly was growing up, and beginning to “rise up and command the position I command,” as he put it, the American “opportunity society” was making it possible for hard-working blue collar workers to give their families middle class lives.
Since then, the right-wing powers that O’Reilly and company are aligned with have busted up the unions, outsourced good American jobs, and consigned the less educated part of the American work force to declining wages, even as worker productivity and the American economy have grown.
It was a lot easier in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, to foster the virtues of responsibility and discipline when the guys on the assembly line could earn a middle class income.
It was also easier when the doors to higher education were open to average and even poorer families than they are now. While the costs of a college education have sky-rocketed, O’Reilly’s political camp has worked to reduce the availability of aid. Equality of opportunity has become a shadow of its former self. A first-rate education is increasingly confined to the children of the rich, while a great many other American families are either priced out of the higher education market or forced to take on a crushing burden of debt to climb the ladder for which such education is required.
O’Reilly shouldn’t be able to have his cake and eat it, too. If he were honest, he’d have to choose: either continue to oppress the people whose failure to advance inflates his sense of his own worth, or combine his exhortations to virtue with support for the policies that will make those virtues more reliably beneficial in people’s lives.
Andy Schmookler’s “Press the Battle” series –“to light a fire in Liberal America” — has been appearing here. The whole series can also be seen here.