Thursday, October 28, 2010

Keep Fear Alive - the Juan Williams Edition

Juan Williams became a center point of attention this past week. Williams, a contributor to both NPR and Fox News, made some controversial comments about his feelings of fear whenever he saw people in Muslim garb on planes. This follows his colleague Bill O' Reilly's comments about Muslims and 9/11 the previous week on "The View". Not surprisingly, Williams was fired from NPR for his comments. Also, not surprisingly, conservatives went on the offensive about his firing. Williams' comment, and the defense of his comment, only reinforce points I've made earlier re: bigotry in America towards Arabs and Muslims...apparently, it's totally cool. Hell, candidates are using bigotry openly as a campaign strategy this year - hating Muslims, immigrants, blacks, gays...apparently all kosher. The response to the Williams firing has made this point even more clear.

So, for starters, what did he say that was so wrong? Well, I don't know, he basically judged a people by their clothing - Muslims/Arabs in full garb scare him on planes. Why? Because they choose to wear said garb, thus identifying themselves with that identity...and that is something to fear. So...Mr. Williams, if we use...your own damn criteria about racism from the 1980s, this is a racist comment. He said: "common sense becomes racism when skin color becomes a formula for figuring out who is a danger to me." Going from skin color to clothing isn't really a big leap in this case. Williams now uses ethnic clothing to determine who he fears. Kind of the same thing he argued against before. Williams did try to distance himself somewhat from his statement, but let's be clear: he made it in defense of O' Reilly's point about the "Muslim" problem in the world. Williams agreed with O' Reilly's point and then made his controversial statement: "I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Now, there's another argument about this: he's black, he has written about the civil rights movement, he can't be racist! This is sort of the defense many on the right have taken. This is...insanely stupid. Racism is not dichotomous...there is more than just black and white. Just because he's black doesn't mean he can't be a racist. And writing about the civil rights movement doesn't negate racist comments, either. What he said was freaking racist, okay? It doesn't matter what his skin color is, or his background. There are plenty of black racists, white racists, Arab racists, etc. To somehow suggest that Juan Williams can't be a racist because he's black and has written about civil rights is just silly.

Next, we have the "he didn't say anything that bad" angle. Since Muslims attacked America on 9/11, its okay to think these things about them. Okay, well, first of all, 19 crazy dudes, in an organization of maybe a few thousand, attacked America. There are over a billion Muslims. Do the math. Second, if we're doing the guilt by association thing, I think there are a lot of other groups that need to be "monitored" pretty closely. White people. Europeans. Christians. Jews. Malaysians. Sri Lankans. Russians. Basically, anybody with skin. Kind of a problem. Williams, of course, had support from his boy O' Reilly, who has gotten some criticism (not really, because it's okay to hate Muslims these days) over his actions on The View when he associated all Muslims with terrorism. Did he actually say that? No. But he intimated it. And he definitely knows what he's doing. All these people do. This is not some accident. They're trying to incite this crazy fear. Let me put it to you this way. If some prominent Arab media figure said this about Americans, would you be downplaying this? Highly unlikely. "They're racist against Americans! We want an apology!" Hell, we make every Arab/Muslim in America apologize for things the fringe lunatics in their religion do. Disown your crazies, right? Well, we can't even acknowledge when an American says something racist like this.

And the press coverage...shows you just how big a problem Islamophobia is in America these days. When somebody important says something potentially racist, who do you go to for thoughts on it? I don't know, how about the group he/she slandered? So...why have I only heard a bunch of white people talking about this? You know, I think it's lovely to hear Karl "I should be in jail for helping out a CIA agent, along with Scooter Libby and Dick Cheney" Rove give me his analysis of how ridiculous NPR was to fire Williams. Ditto Bill O' Reilly, Britt Humes, Keith Olbermann, Michael Moore, etc. But how about hearing from a few Muslims? A few Arabs? Would this be so hard to do? If I said something potentially racist about black people, it would make sense to have folks like Jesse Jackson, Michael Eric Dyson, L'Heureux Lewis, etc., provide their thoughts about what I said. In fact, it would be critical to have them provide their thoughts. What do we get here? A bunch of non-Arab non-Muslims talking about how Williams was either right in what he said, or wrong...but seemingly none of the people he may/may not have offended. Nice. Maybe they don't care? Yes, that must be it. There can be no other explanation...right? Because, otherwise, this reveals just how big a problem we have right now.

Finally, there are many who thinks Williams is contributing to the national discourse on race with his comments and should not have lost his job because of them. Two huge problems. One, Williams is a journalist. You know what journalists are not supposed to do? Reveal personal biases. Apparently, this personal bias problem is one NPR tolerated from Williams for a while, but this incident was the last straw.

Ultimately, journalists are supposed to be people we trust for non-partisan analysis. Whether they are really unbiased, or whether a comedian does their job better than they do themselves, is an issue in itself, but still, to openly state this kind of bias (which implies that he's got something against Muslims) kind of kills his ability to report on anything re: Muslims, Arabs, or honestly, anything. If a journalist openly talks about prejudices WITHOUT ACKNOWLEDGING THAT THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG ABOUT THEM, they have no credibility to be an honest reporter. Which is precisely why NPR was right to fire him. Which is precisely why Fox News gave him a new $2 million contract. Muslim-hating is what they do over there. He'll fit right in. (For some evidence of this, watch Jon Stewart below)

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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This latter issue is the second, and a more dangerous, problem. What many others get so horribly wrong is that allowing racists to be part of the debate without pointing out that their views are racist and wrong is not making any progress on racism. They talk about the importance of allowing people to be fully honest and participate in the conversation, yet somehow completely forget the fact that neither Williams (nor O' Reilly - not surprising, he's a open anti-Muslim/Arab bigot, and kind of a moron, anyway...that I went to the same college as he did makes me a little ill) ever pointed out the problems re: their statements. Had Juan Williams said something right after his comment like "and I realize that's not right", this would be very different. Fact is, we're all a little racist, and we all need to work on being less racist. That's helping the debate...acknowledging the problems with what we say and think, even if there is some substance behind them. And, by the way, most of that "substance" exogenizes something pretty politics, economics, etc. Do poor people commit more crime? Yes. Does that mean the problem is with poor people? Or that their economic circumstances play at least some role?

But instead, what Williams' supporters do by allowing people making bigoted comments a seat at the table as legitimate participants in discourse about hate speech is normalize xenophobia. For them, there's nothing fundamentally wrong about racist talk. This type of discourse removes stigma from racism and attempts to study and analyze xenophobia in order to make said discourse objective, even though racism, by its very nature, is non-objective. Instead of fighting bigotry, this type of discourse enables it. There is a reason why "the other" in this equation is never the one proposing this kind of discourse. Only those never subject to bigotry can think of such a dangerous idea as encouraging objective discourse on it, where all views are seen as legitimate. These folks have clearly never tried to walk in the shoes of an Arab-American Muslim in Dearborn today, of a young black girl in Selma in the 1950s, of a Japanese-American teenager in the 1940s, of a Jew in Poland in the 1930s...the list goes on and on.

Not surprisingly, Williams claims he's being censored by NPR. It is true that Williams didn't advocate discriminating against Muslims, but he clearly insulted them, treated them as an "other", and did so in a purposeful manner. So, yeah, no. Juan, you're being fired by NPR because you are making racist comments, and you didn't talk about how your racist views are a problem to be worked on. Now, if 30-40% of Muslims dressed like that were terrorists, okay, he might have a point - so long as, again, we're not exogenizing some major explanatory factor, like political situations, economics, etc., which we almost certainly would be (reductionist arguments don't really work out so well, you know...see: every racist argument in history). But, that is not even remotely close to being true.

Williams is instead just contributing to the problem in this country right apparently is okay to be racist against Muslims. I've written plenty about this re: Park 51 (aka the Ground Zero [though it is not at Ground Zero, but rather an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory] Mosque [though it is really an Islamic community center]), which is the culmination of a decade of this kind of crap. By allowing bigotry into the conversation, we've lost so much as a society.

Nowadays, anything Arab or Muslim is potentially bad, any attack against them (like Williams') is allowed - and even defended when organizations like NPR actually do the right thing. is not okay to argue that Arab culture or Islam is fundamentally violent. Last I checked, America killed more innocent civilians in a few seconds on two separate horrible days in 1945 than al-Qaeda ever did, right? As the new Wikileaks leaks reveal, we've done horrible, horrible things in Iraq. We kill innocent people in possibly-illegal drone attacks in Pakistan every week. We dropped depleted uranium shells in Iraq despite the fact that we knew the remains were highly carcinogenic. We have done things that al-Qaeda cannot approach in any fantasy world. This is why Chris Rock isn't scared of al-Qaeda; he's scared of al-Cracka (see below). That does not make Americans bad people, though. Anybody who makes that claim is wrong. Just like Williams is wrong about his claim.

So, what's the solution to all this? I don't know. Maybe we need to let Americans go undercover (like Eddie Murphy did in a famous SNL sketch years ago to uncover the differences between white and black America), disguise themselves as Muslim-Americans, and see what that life is like. Williams certainly should know better...he did experience the civil rights movement, so he knows what racism is. In his case, he's just decided that racism is only about black and white. Maybe the problem is, there are too many people who have no clue what kind of damage this kind of bigotry that America has tolerated and now, seemingly, embraced, has on Muslims and Arabs in our land, people who have the same goals and dreams as everyone else. Williams' supporters don't see their support of Williams allows racism into a debate on these topics without calling it what it is. They make no effort to walk in the shoes of the other person for a little while.

We see the effects of a decade of just this kind of accepted racism before our very eyes. The damage will take many many years to fix. And that's only if we start doing something about it now. That is to say, we need to call a spade a spade. If we want a society that doesn't live in irrational fear of nonsensical, Hollywood B-movie style supervillans, we need to realize that allowing bigotry like the kind Juan Williams exhibited is bigotry.

It can be part of the conversation....IF WE CALL IT WHAT IT IS. Otherwise, it only helps enable more bigotry, creating a dangerous and toxic climate of hatred. These situations leave us morally hollow. Nobody says, hey, thank goodness the Salem witch trials went down the way they did...or, boy, if it wasn't for McCarthyism, we'd be kind of screwed right now...or, man, do I get nostalgic for lynchings. If Juan Williams and his band of non-Arab non-Muslim racists want to keep arguing that NPR was censoring him, fine. Everyone else better understand that not standing up to such actions is un-American in every sense of the word. Failing to do so will result in nothing never has.


AScarett said...

Take or leave, and I am not endorsing or rejecting the statements, but here's a conservative media outlet with Arab/Muslim-American reaction to the Williams situation:

FrankA said...

Mr. Hornet,

I wonder if you can envision a scenario or situation in which Williams' comments would not be considered racist. For example, let's say an American was going to work for USAID in Kabul. Her first week there, her vehicle is stuck in traffic because there is a large cargo van stalled in the road. Can she justifiably be nervous about the 2 Afghan men milling around the truck, given that this is a common scenario for detonating a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device? Would your judgment change if, 3 months into her time there, her office mate was wounded while waiting at the security checkpoint to enter the embassy and a man dressed in an Afghan National Army uniform detonated himself? Could she then justifiably be nervous the next time she was in the same line, and a man in ANA uniform cuts to the front of the line?

Conversely, what about an Afghan who sees two American men walking down the street in Kabul? He doesn't know if they are there with USAID or Blackwater (Xe), but he's watched the footage from Fallujah on al-Jazeera. Can he justify being nervous as the two men walk towards him? What if our Afghan friend saw two uniformed American servicemen walking towards him? The majority of American servicemen in Afghanistan are support troops, most of whom have never fired their weapon in theater. But our Afghan friend just got back from talking to his brother about the latest WikiLeaks dump, and doesn't know if the patches on the servicemen's sleeves are Civil Affairs or infantry. Justifiably nervous? If so, where's the point of inflection between Williams and him?

Thank you for your time.

the silent type said...

I know it's not my opinion you're soliciting, but I'll jump in anyway because I'm feeling up to it.

The first scenario you pose is still racist. If the piece of this that causes her the most worry is the Afghan men "milling around" because they may be attempting to detonate an explosive device, she's racist. There's no two ways around that. If Afghan men "milling around" in Afghanistan makes you nervous, you're racist. Now, if the circumstances are what makes her nervous, she's stuck in traffic, there's a seemingly stalled vehicle, this is a common tactic employed to detonate improvised explosive devices, that's a different story. In that instance, you could replace Afghan with American, Brit, Guyanese, Mongolian, Senegalese, Turk, whatever and the response would be the same.

Your second scenario is a bit more problematic. If that Afghan man is nervous simply because two Americans are approaching him, then yes, he would be the equivalent of racist. I won't go off on an unnecessary, for this discussion, diatribe on the definitional differences (attributable to power dynamics) between racism and bigotry/prejudice/racial-ethnic discrimination or whatever other term you would like. So for now racism will suffice. The problem in scenario comes from the fact that you took it one step further than racial, or more correctly national origin. You added a descriptor, servicemen. That adds something else to this Afghan's reaction. As much as he might be reacting to the national origin of the men approaching him, he could be responding to their occupation. Particularly in a nation like Afghanistan that has been in one state or another of war for the last 30 years or so, there is no way you can say that he wouldn't or shouldn't have some negative association made with soldiers no matter their racial/ethnic background or nation of origin. That hasn't been my experience and I'm nowhere near thrilled to walk out my office and see heavily armed men (I work near the Stock Exchange in New York).

That's just my two cents. I'm sure my colleague will chime in with an opinion.

brown hornet said...

Re: AScarett - the exception proves the rule. That's one of the few places that have placed Arabs or Muslims in the center of the debate. Of course, its a conservative media outlet that, not surprisingly, got 2 Muslims to agree with their view. I know these communities very well, and what those people represent is not remotely close to the mainstream...tokenism at its finest right there.

Re: FrankA, my colleague the silent type gave a pretty good answer. I will paraphrase Juan Williams from the 80s on this (the actual quote is in this post) - if I determine who I fear based on skin color or clothing or ethnicity, I am racist. Situational circumstances are different - so if the USAID worker sees Afghanis acting suspiciously, that is different than reacting because they are Afghani. Ditto the Afghan reacting to Americans. And...let us not forget, we are basically all somewhat racist. We make real progress when we acknowledge this and try to work through it. Part of the problem re: the Williams incident is that he never acknowledged the fundamental problem with his comments...he and his defenders are saying he was only speaking the truth. Also, he is a journalist, so he has to be held to a different standard than a private citizen...thus, even if he apologized, his credibility is forever tarnished, and NPR should have fired him, anyway.

FrankA said...

Thank you both for your comments.

It may be splitting hairs, but I think it is worth pointing out that Williams' remarks made no mention of skin color or physical appearance as the basis of his nervousness. He stated that it was people in "Muslim garb," and that the root of his concern was that they are identifying themselves "first and foremost as Muslims." Taken literally, a "Arab looking" man in jeans and a sweater would make him less nervous than a white or black man in a thaub and headdress.

Given that, I wonder if my scenario regarding the Afghan and the two US servicemen might be the most applicable analogy. As you pointed out, the Afghan's potential nervousness has less to do with skin color than with the Americans' conscious, volitional choice to identify with a group and wear its associated clothing.

One final hypothetical, I promise: say you're a store security guard and two groups of 3 20-year old males come into your store. The first group is wearing Jordans, black skinny jeans, wife beaters and fitted ball caps cocked to one side. The second group is wearing docksiders, plaid shorts, and pastel polo shirts. Let's assume each group is mixed races. Is the security guard a racist if he pays more attention to the first group, whose clothing associates them with an urban, gangsta / thug lifestyle, whereas the second group's clothing is an upper-middle class Georgetown preppy look? Not all young men who dress in an urban style are shoplifters, and some shoplifters look very well-off and preppy, just as not all people in Muslim / Arab garb are terrorists (and, as some have pointed out, neither the 9/11 terrorists or the subsequent failed terrorists were wearing traditional Arab / Muslim garb). But is the security guard not justified in keeping a closer eye on the first group, and for thinking to himself "Of all the clothing styles you could choose from, you chose to go for that look and associate with that sub-culture for a reason...?"

the silent type said...

I'm not sure that I'd call that splitting hairs, but it certainly doesn't make his comments any better. So it's fine to be a Muslim, as long as other people can't tell you're a Muslim from looking at you? We could argue about whether or not that's racist, but there's no arguing about that being dehumanizing. If Arabs, or Arab looking people, were the only folks who were Muslim, I'd give you letting him off the hook with that last point, but I know some very black Black folks who are Muslim and some very white White folks as well.

That's certainly a closer analogy, but still flawed. Religious affiliation is certainly a choice like occupation, but there is a piece of cultural identification that also goes into religion that doesn't exist in most vocations. Beyond that, where does that end. Would I be justified in asking an airline to move or remove any obviously White and/or Christian person from any plane I get on? After all, I've got plenty of well documented grievances against both groups of people. At some point, we have to take and meet people as individuals or we're all suspect.

Let's turn that around. Would those gentlemen dressed in a more "urban" style of dress, though I question anyone's urban credentials if you're rocking skinny jeans, be justified in thinking that the security guard was racist or disliked "minorities" because he took a job in security? Or are you only guilty by association if your association is not, or could not pass for, White Anglo-Saxon Christian? I know, that screws up the whole WASP thing, but Catholics are Christians too.