On Monday night’s broadcast of The O’Reilly Factor, NPR news analyst Juan Williams, who is also a longtime Fox News contributor, said this:
Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality. 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 … I get worried. I get nervous. (Watch the full clip below.)
You’ve heard about this by now. NPR fired Williams on Wednesday. It’s created plenty of dialogue about the function of news analysts, political correctness, conservative and liberal news bias, etc. etc. But to me, the most interesting aspect of this whole kerfuffle is the question it raises about how we talk about and define racism (and/or bigotry) in this country. Putting aside the question of whether it was appropriate to his role at NPR, was Williams’ statement bigoted?
The short answer is no. But it wasn’t rational, either; the 9/11 hijackers weren’t in Muslim garb, and they weren’t “identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims.”
The sentiment that Williams expressed is undoubtedly shared by millions of Americans, because we’ve been conditioned to identify Muslims with terrorists, and because when most Americans think “Muslim person,” that imaginary person is wearing Muslim garb.
There’s nothing wrong with having these kinds of thoughts per se; prejudices are largely pre-rational and unconscious, and based to varying extent on reality and experience—in fact, many terrorists have been Muslims, and many Muslims wear Muslim garb. Having “racist” or prejudicial thoughts doesn’t make you a bigot.
The distinction between someone who has pre-rational, prejudicial thoughts (everyone), and a bigot, is whether that person employs his uniquely human ability to stop and think critically—to reflect on whether those thoughts are accurate or fair—before he acts.
I don’t worry when I see Muslims on my plane, for the same reason that I don’t worry about the plane crashing because of a mechanical malfunction—although in both cases, I have a flash of a thought about the possibility.
Just as it is irrational to believe that the flight you’re on will be the one in a million that crashes because of engine failure, it’s irrational to believe that the two Muslims on your flight are radical extremists plotting to hijack the plane. I have unconscious racist thoughts, but I consciously reflect on how irrational they are, and try not to let them affect my behavior.
I don’t think Williams ought to have been fired for what he said on The O’Reilly Factor (but then, he probably wasn’t). One the biggest problems with our national discussion about race is our inability to acknowledge this distinction between pre-rational thoughts—which we all have—and the rational choice to act on them.