Bill O’Reilly is not a serious person. He is however very influential among the low-information — and almost exclusively white — audience of Fox News. In the conservative media’s alternate reality, where the politics of disorientation and epistemic closure reign supreme, O’Reilly is a high priest. His words have power.
Earlier this week, while responding to the first Democratic debate, in which Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton acknowledged the major impediments to racial justice in this country, he made the following perverse observation:
If the [Black Lives Matter] movement doesn't repudiate [anti-police rhetoric], it's like the Ku Klux Klan, alright? You know, are all Klansman going to hang blacks? No. But they're all in the same soup bowl, alright? Because they don't divorce themselves from the group who did do those things.
These comments originate from the same boilerplate talking points the Republican Party and movement conservatives have been using for years. The Southern Strategy still rules a party where conservatism and racism are now largely one and the same. Demands that non-whites should enjoy the same protections -- that they not be treated as second-class citizens by the nation's courts, that their children shouldn't be at risk of summary execution by America's police -- are ignored. Or, worse yet, these demands are treated as actual threats to White America and to the safety of white people.
(In this moment, following yet another mass shooting, one should also not ignore how the language of “black crime” plays on and magnifies the deep connections between racism, gun ownership, and support for concealed carried laws.)
O’Reilly's claims here are factually challenged in many ways. Primarily, there is no evidence of a connection between the Black Lives Matter movement and a supposed “spree” of attacks on America’s police. The suggestion that there is is nothing more than confirmation bias filtered through the White Gaze and the White Racial Frame -- aided in large part by a media apparatus more than willing to connect the dots. Contrary to the popular myth, police work is also not one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States -- and, in fact, police deaths on the job are near their lowest levels in decades.
In reality, pandering such as O'Reilly's is part of the American Right’s long, desperate search for “black racism.” White supremacists desperately engage in this quest. “Respectable” conservative elites and the “mainstream” right-wing media also participate in the hunt too. Black conservatives ride at the head of the pack as trackers and scouts. O’Reilly and other conservatives are obsessed with finding “black racism” because, in the right-wing political imagination, to find examples of “black racism” would erase centuries of white supremacy and white privilege in the United States.
And as I have suggested elsewhere, the White Right’s dream of “black racism” is emblematic of its effort to create a world where “everyone’s sin is no one’s sin.” Indeed, the ascendant brand of "colorblind" racism that informs this thinking is predicated on the myth that all people and groups in the United States are equally racist. The end result of such thinking is a type of compromise-based politics built on white-washed myth making and empty claims to "diversity," a cherrypicked reckoning of American history, past and present, that sanitizes the radicalism of the Civil Rights Movement -- reducing it, more or less, to a selectively edited version of the "I Have a Dream" speech.
A history lesson for Fox News
O’Reilly’s ahistorical and specious comment about Black Lives Matter and the Ku Klux Klan demands engagement, because the lie of “black racism” stands in the way of the goal of creating a more just and equitable society for all people.
Racism is a sin that is unique to White America. This is not because of arbitrary distinctions of skin color and melanin count, but rather because of the dynamics of inter-group power. And “Black people do it too” is a rhetorical trick that prevents Americans of good conscience from confronting the very specific ways that white privilege and white racism hurts, kills, and otherwise negatively impacts the life chances of black and brown people in the United States.
Ultimately, such distortions and lies are easily refuted:
The Ku Klux Klan was the largest domestic terrorist organization in American history. It is estimated that the KKK and the mass violence it either directly inspired or took part in killed at least 4,000 black people by lynchings, and perhaps as many as 50,000 by other types of white domestic terrorism. The reign of terror inspired and carried out by the KKK, along with other white paramilitaries, was so great that it compelled the great African-American migrations from the South to other parts of the United States -- a move that involved at least 5 million people over several decades.
At the height of its power, the KKK controlled entire towns, states, and territories. It was also was one of the preeminent civil organizations and pathways to white “respectability” in the United States during the 19th and early to mid 20th centuries.
There is no equivalent organization in the history of the United States. And there is most certainly not a black or brown Ku Klux Klan in American history. Why not? The United States was founded as a white racial settler state. Its government from before the founding and through to the 20th century embraced white supremacy as the law of the land. No such arrangement of power would ever tolerate a black “terrorist” organization, much less one to match the scope and influence of the KKK. Moreover, those black and brown organizations that tried to resist white supremacy -- even by non-violent means -- were destroyed, and their leaders killed and imprisoned, by the FBI’s COINTELPRO initiative and the broader United States national security apparatus.
When faced with the horrific violence of white racism, black folks have, almost to the one, behaved with almost superhuman levels of peace, dignity, and comportment. Even during the Civil War, when black folks were self-manumitting and taking their freedom from white enslavers, there were few if any moments of revenge.
Historian Stephen Hahn describes these moments beautifully when he writes in "The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom" how:
Many of those who remained at “home” nonetheless contested the authority of their owners in ways that were central to the meaning of enslavement: demanding pay, rejecting close supervision, making decisions about life and labor themselves, coming and going as they pleased. In some cases, they took direct action against their masters by sacking their estates and destroying their property. Why shouldn’t the slaveholders and Confederates have seen rebellion and insurrection percolating or being enacted at every turn?
The historical record, it should be said, reveals relatively few examples of slaves wreaking vengeance through personal violence or the torching of plantations or farms. And this may be why historians are so reluctant to liken the slaves’ wartime activities to a rebellion or set of rebellions. Authentic slave rebels, it would seem, are supposed to do certain things. They are supposed to conspire secretly, arm themselves, rise up, attempt to exterminate their oppressors, and try to ﬁnd some means of either escaping slavery or overturning it. Alas, few such Civil War–era conspiracies and fewer, if any, such rebellions, have ever been uncovered, even by those who were looking hard for them.
Thus, there is something almost comic about O’Reilly's demand -- echoed by much of conservative America -- that one group of black people publicly denounce another group of black people in order to remedy some perceived act of disrespect towards White America. And he makes this demand on Fox News, a television network whose audience is 93 percent white.
O’Reilly, like many white conservatives (and yes, even some white liberals), is disturbed by how Black America occupies the role of moral conscience for the United States. As they have repeatedly shown to a country they love, but which does not love them back, Black Americans have so much to teach their white brothers and sisters about the true meaning of citizenship, struggle, and the best of what the American democratic creed can be.
The Black Freedom Struggle terrifies white conservatives. It should. The moral arc of the universe does bend towards justice, and those who are desperate to conserve white power are standing in its way.