A telltale moment in Wednesday night’s showdown between Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart over white privilege relates to Levittown, N.Y., the legendary Long Island area where O’Reilly spent a boyhood consisting of pranks, stickball games and just plain-old American living. In seeking to pin down O’Reilly on the possibility that he is a product of white privilege, Stewart dug in on O’Reilly’s home town. Of Levittown, Stewart riffed, “It gave you a nice stable, a cheap home — there was no down payments. It was this incredible opportunity … Those houses were subsidized … It wasn’t lavish,” said Stewart.
The back-and-forth that followed is essential to understanding the Fox News celebrity:
O’Reilly: No, they weren’t subsidized. They were sold to GIs, and the GIs got a mortgage they could afford.
Stewart: Did that upbringing leave a mark on you even today?
O’Reilly: Of course. Every upbringing leaves a mark on people.
Stewart: Could black people live in Levittown?
O’Reilly: Not in that time — they could not.
Stewart: So that, my friend, is what we call in the business “white privilege.”
O’Reilly: That was in 1950, all right.
Stewart: Were there black people living there in 1960?
O’Reilly: In Levittown? I don’t know.
Stewart: There weren’t.
O’Reilly: How do you know?
Stewart: Because I read up on it.
O’Reilly: Oh, you read up! You don’t know that. I can find somebody…Why would you want to live there? It’s a nice place, but it’s not a place like … Bel Air, come on!
Bold text added to highlight O’Reilly at his worst, somehow suggesting that if he could find a single black resident of Levittown from way back, his point would be proved.
Because he’s the King of Cable News, O’Reilly’s childhood has drawn protracted attention. Marvin Kitman, whose biography “The Man Who Would Not Shut Up: The Rise of Bill O’Reilly” plumbs the guy’s childhood and tackles the O’Reilly family’s purchase of its “box house.” It was 1951, writes Kitman, that “the O’Reillys moved to a small house on Long Island built by William Levitt, one of the 17,447 homes on a thousand lanes originally in the Levittown development on 7.3 square miles of former potato fields…All a prospective buyer needed to buy one of the original Levitt ‘ranch’ houses, sales prices at $7,990, was a $90 deposit and payments of $58 a month.”
As O’Reilly himself conceded, a black Bill O’Reilly Sr. could never have availed himself of that deal. When Levittown turned 50 in 1997, the New York Times drilled into the development’s history of racial exclusion, quoting Eugene Burnett, a black veteran who sought, in effect, to become a neighbor of the O’Reillys. “When I hear ‘Levittown,’ what rings in my mind is when the salesman said: ‘It’s not me, you see, but the owners of this development have not as yet decided whether they’re going to sell these homes to Negroes,'” the Times quotes Burnett as recalling. “He said he still stings from ‘the feeling of rejection on that long ride back to Harlem.’ ”
Nor was this the loose policy that the salesman’s words implied. As the Times notes, Levittown’s lease form (which included an option to buy) stated that the homes could not “be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” Though the clause was phased out in 1948 on account of a Supreme Court ruling, the development “continued adhering to its racial bar,” according to the Times. Such policies had the full support of the redlining ways of the Federal Housing Administration.
Funny thing about that Times story: It includes a line that just about perfectly summarizes O’Reilly’s feelings about race and achievement in America: “Whenever historians, planners and sociologists plumb the lessons of Levittown, race always looms. The debate is not simple or comfortable, especially for people here. Early Levittowners moved here under rules favoring them that they did not make. Later arrivals inherited a history that they did not create.”
Bold text inserted for obvious reasons.
Time is O’Reilly’s refuge in his attempts to dismiss white privilege. “That was in 1950, all right,” he argues to Stewart about Levittown’s discriminatory ways. As if white privilege and black subjugation had simply vanished in the intervening decades. It’s likely, then, that the cable-news host missed Ta-Nehisi Coates’s piece in the Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” The story begins with the case of Clyde Ross, who was born in 1923, served in World War II and moved to Chicago in 1947. A racist system cheated him out of a bona fide mortgage. As of May of this year, when Coates’s piece was published, he was still around.