If Fox News host Bill O’Reilly keeps saying such clownish things, he’s going to qualify for a full-time seat on “Fox & Friends.”
Last week the King of Cable News visited the “Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart, who challenged him on his contentions that white privilege doesn’t really exist in the United States. A critical point in the discussion centered on O’Reilly’s upbringing in Levittown, N.Y. Under tense questioning from Stewart, O’Reilly conceded that black families weren’t welcome there when the O’Reillys bought their home in the early 1950s. But he said that was a long time ago and, in any case, it’s not as if Levittown was “Bel Air.”
Perhaps sensing that he’d convinced no one of his point on the “Daily Show,” O’Reilly was at it again last night in the more friendly confines of his own, eponymous show, “The O’Reilly Factor.” In a segment titled “Truth Serum,” O’Reilly discussed with correspondent Eric Shawn the restrictions that maintained Levittown’s monochromatic character. Noted Shawn: “It was the federal government and Levittown himself, William Levitt, had a deed that could only be used by people of, quote, ‘the Caucasian race.'”
So O’Reilly admitted the point on segregation. But then he pivoted to a strange and unseemly place. Only a full transcription can capture its depravity:
[T]he mistake he makes is that there was some kind of privilege associated with living in Levittown . . . He is making it out to be Bel Air. All right. Trust me. It was a good place to grow up because there were a lot of kids, but there wasn’t any privilege involved in growing up there. And blacks on Long Island lived in places like Hempstead and Westbury. Some of those neighborhoods were good and some of them weren’t.
Bold text highlighted to raise a question: Is O’Reilly really suggesting that there was a separate-but-equal quality to housing segregation in immediate postwar United States?
Because there’s a term that scholars use for the neighborhoods where African Americans found themselves in metropolitan areas after World War II: the ghetto. How the segregation emerged is complicated, involving migrations, federal housing policy, economics and brutal racism. Here’s a straightforward articulation of the dynamic that seems to have escaped history-buff O’Reilly: “With public housing, federal and local governments increased the isolation of African Americans in urban ghettos, and with mortgage guarantees, the government subsidized whites to abandon urban areas for the suburbs,” writes Richard Rothstein in the American Prospect. “The combination was largely responsible for creating the segregated neighborhoods and schools we know today, with truly disadvantaged minority students isolated in poor, increasingly desperate communities where teachers struggle unsuccessfully to overcome their families’ multiple needs.”
John Logan, a professor of sociology at Brown University, agrees with O’Reilly that Levittown was heavily working class and “represented the middle or lower middle level of whites who lived on Long Island,” Logan told the Erik Wemple Blog. That said, “He certainly does imply that African Americans, although they were excluded from access to places like Levittown, had access to a wide range of places to live, and that’s wrong.” Levittown and its environs, notes Logan, was segregated decades ago and remains so today. He cites a data point that applies to Long Island as well as the rest of the country: “The average African American that earns over $75,000 per year lives in a neighborhood . . . where the poverty rate is higher than the neighborhood where whites earning less than $40,000 live.”
“I think he’s just unaware,” says Logan of O’Reilly, putting perhaps the best possible spin on O’Reilly’s assertions.