Mark Naison is a professor of African American studies and history at New York’s Fordham University and director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and more than 100 articles on African American history, urban history and the history of sports, and he keeps a blog, “With a Brooklyn Accent.” A number of his posts have appeared on The Answer Sheet, including “Why Teach For America Can’t Recruit in My Classroom.”
In this post, Naison recalls an appearance he made on Bill O’Reilly’s now defunct Fox News show, “The O’Reilly Factor.” O’Reilly’s contract with Fox was just terminated — with a reported severance of some $25 million — amid a drama about a series of sexual harassment suits against the popular television show host. This piece is a reminder of some of the distorted views O’Reilly peddled on his show.
By Mark Naison
Ten years ago, I received a call inviting me to appear on “The O’Reilly Factor.” The occasion was a controversy in a town in Ohio where a white teacher was chosen to teach a black history course when the one black teacher in the school retired. I assumed that I was called because my recently published book “White Boy: A Memoir” described how I ended up as a professor in Fordham University’s black studies department.
I had some experience with media appearances about this subject and had just done an appearance on Dave Chappelle’s show, so I decided to accept despite O’Reilly’s reputation for eviscerating liberal guests. When I got to the studio, I quickly concluded that this experience was going to be more challenging than my other media appearances, including on the Fox Business Network, where I was interviewed on Andrew Napolitano’s show.
Whenever I was interviewed on television, I was accustomed to being escorted into a room where guests wait with a friendly employee and are offered snacks. None of this transpired. A grim-faced woman led me to a small room without food and water but with a big television on the wall. I watched O’Reilly tear apart the head of the Republican National Committee, someone far closer to his political point of view.
My strategy was to be extremely polite and respectful, but constantly change the narrative that he was trying to establish. First, though, I wanted to make clear to O’Reilly that even though I was a liberal professor, I was not someone he could push around.
I walked into the studio with a big smile on my face. I assumed my most intimidating posture, looked him straight in the eye, and shook his hand with what he must have thought was surprising firmness (I have tennis balls cut in half on my office desk that I squeeze regularly to strengthen my forearm). Then I sat down.
When the discussion started, it became clear that O’Reilly’s agenda was to show that what he called “black racism” — which he claimed was at play when black parents and students protested a white teacher taking over their school’s black history course — was a bigger problem than white racism.
So I had to change the narrative early. First, I had to say that the Ohio parents’ concerns were reasonable. That given how U.S. history had been written and taught, it was hardly unreasonable to look upon a white person teaching African American history with some skepticism.
I also said that context was important. When I was hired to teach courses on black history at Fordham, there were six black professors from which students could choose. That is a very different situation from a school where there is only one black history course taught by one teacher.
The area in which I agreed with O’Reilly is that there should be no hard and fast rule about who can teach a particular subject based on their background. But I vehemently disagreed with his suggestion that the black parents and students in that Ohio school were “racist.” Given that there was only one black history course in the school, it was reasonable that they try to find a black person to teach it.
We sparred about the Ohio situation a moment, then I said, “Look, reasonable people may disagree about the Ohio controversy, but one thing we can’t lose sight of is that white racism remains a HUGE problem in American society, something that CANNOT be compared to whatever alleged discrimination whites experience at the hands of blacks.”
Then, before he could catch a breath, I said the following:
“Look Bill. I am not some ivy-tower professor. I spent 20 years coaching CYO basketball and sandlot baseball in Brooklyn. Just last week, my friend Gary Nielsen, a New York City firefighter, took his younger son and one of his friends, who happened to be black, to his summer home in Breezy Point, an enclave filled with mostly Irish cops and firemen. When his son and his friend went to get a snack at a local takeout place, a woman came up to them, and screamed at his black friend, “Get out of here, you don’t belong here,” and kicked him! Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing, and much worse, that black people face every day.
“To compare the suspicion a white teacher experienced when trying to teach a black history course to this kind of experience doesn’t reflect the lived realities of blacks and whites in this country.”
Just as I finished my remarks, I was told that time was up!
As the show ended, I shook his hand and said, “I really enjoyed this. I hope I will be invited back to continue this conversation.”
I never was.
And now that O’Reilly is off the air, I guess I never will be.
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