Viewers of Wednesday night’s The Daily Show were treated to a huge, steaming pile of stultified Bill O’Reilly, partially courtesy of Jon Stewart, but mostly of his own towering sense of privilege. Stewart’s White Privilege lecture, however, was, itself, not devoid of privilege.
To be sure, it is impossible to watch the segment without wanting to stand up and cheer as Jon Stewart vanquishes Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who actually says that white privilege doesn’t exist because there’s a black president and a black Oprah, and who, in the must-see extended interview, insists, “I’m not sitting here because I’m white, I’m sitting here because I’m obnoxious!” as if the two are unrelated. As a media pro-wrestling bout, this is as satisfying as anything Summer Slam has ever cooked up. Stewart schools and stymies O’Reilly repeatedly, pegging a lot of his argument to O’Reilly’s own upbringing in Levittown, and the effect of housing discrimination on black families. It was great stuff, and he got O’Reilly to admit, in the end, that white privilege is “a factor” in modern American life.
There are a few things that I found (and I hate to use this word) problematic about Stewart’s lecture, while still not letting O’Reilly off the hook one iota. First of all, there were several points at which Stewart framed the advantages O’Reilly derived from his upbringing as “values” and “culture”:
“What made you, culturally? Do you think your up bringing gave you values, ethics?”
“It’s a place that built values.”
While Stewart got a lot of things right (seriously, watch the whole thing), his framing of O’Reilly’s upbringing suggests that the black experience, for whatever legitimate white-privilege-influenced reasons, is disadvantaged in the areas of culture, values, and ethics. Aside from the fact that if Bill O’Reilly grew up in the 1950s, what made him culturally was probably Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters, the effects of Jim Crow and slavery didn’t disadvantage black people culturally or morally. The advantage that Bill O’Reilly derived from being white wasn’t superior values or culture. The advantage was in being able to realize them without impediment.
More to the point, though, Stewart repeatedly refers to present-day racial disparities as the “residue” of slavery and Jim Crow, as “residual effects” of our racist past. Now, I get that he’s trying to play ambassador to Obnoxious White America, but it actually does take a certain amount of privilege to call the modern black American experience “residual” of anything. It wasn’t residual for Eric Garner, or John Crawford, or Renisha McBride, or any of dozens of names I know, and multitudes whose names we don’t know.
Maybe this is the exact wrong tack to take with people like O’Reilly, this idea that the crushing weight of our history has to, just by virtue of common sense, persist in some form today. Maybe the better idea is to say okay, let’s forget slavery and Jim Crow ever happened for purposes of this discussion. Let’s pretend we all woke up even-Steven this morning, clean slate, all that shit. Why is it that housing discrimination exists today, why is it that racist mass incarceration exists today, why is it that racist job discrimination still shows up in every study, why is it that election laws are preventing black people from voting, and why is it that black people are being shot, tased, and choked to death in every imaginable situation for doing nothing more than being black…today?