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 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 Mr. O'Reilly's problem. He has been vilified recently by the liberal Web site Media Matters for America for insinuating how surprised he was to discover how civilized black folks behaved while dining in Sylvia's, one of Harlem'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!
"It was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there," he said, "and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn't any kind of craziness at all. ... There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-F-er, I want more iced tea!'"
No, ignorance about race might not make you a racist. It only makes you ignorant. That's why I think Mr. O'Reilly deserves a break. When someone is ignorant, you should try to teach him. Instead, a lot of otherwise good-hearted, fair-minded and charitable people want to tar and feather Mr. O'Reilly. Peace, people. I know Mr. 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.
You see, in the context of a later lengthy chat with author Juan Williams, a black National Public Radio reporter and Fox News commentator, Mr. O'Reilly wasn't trying to sound racist. Quite the opposite; he actually was criticizing all of those white people who don't personally know many black folks.
What Mr. O'Reilly doesn't seem to understand is the weariness black Americans feel over constantly being compared with our community's worst role models. That's a big reason why it seems curious that Mr. 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, Mr. O'Reilly appears to be afflicted with what President Bush calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations."
But that's OK. How else will Mr. O'Reilly, I or anybody else learn anything if we don't make a few boneheaded mistakes once in a while? My greater fear than hearing Mr. O'Reilly talk himself into a politically incorrect hole is the silence of those afraid to say anything about race for fear of offending someone. We need more candid talk about race and class, not less.
Besides, look at his upbringing. Through no fault of his own, Mr. O'Reilly came from a socially and economically isolated background. He calls himself "working class" in his first book, The O'Reilly Factor, although compared with my factory laborer dad in Ohio, Mr. O'Reilly's family was well-to-do. He grew up in white, middle-class Levittown, on New York's Long Island. Like other socially handicapped folks, Mr. 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!" Liberals, of all people, should avoid blaming the victim.
Nevertheless, let's give Mr. O'Reilly credit for trying to widen his horizons. It turns out, he was dining that night at Sylvia's with the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has made re-educating white folks his life's work.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.