Marc Lamont Hill is a professor at Columbia University and also one of my closest friends. He studied under the great Michael Eric Dyson, who has become an academic father/older brother figure for the both of us. I have always respected Marc's sharp and speedy intellect and, although we don't agree on everything, I've never sensed anything but respect coming from his words and actions.
One area where we disagree vehemently is in our relationship with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly.
Personally, Bill O'Reilly reminds me of the kind of racist, condescending, un-American bonehead that I grew up with in Kentucky. He speaks ill of people of color on a regular basis and acts as though his platform precludes him from taking any responsibility for his words or having empathy for his fellow man. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he joked about lynching Michelle Obama and "complimented" the people in Harlem for not behaving like animals during a visit he made there with Rev. Al Sharpton.
For some people, it's all a game. O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity (who form what I call "The Axis of Ignorance") say inflammatory things to get us riled up; we then respond according to plan. Fox's ratings increase as we all watch 'The O'Reilly Factor' and curse at the television set. Not me, my friends. In 2008, when O'Reilly spent an entire week calling for me to be fired from Syracuse University, I barely watched the show. A man whose words wreak of such ignorance and indecency is hardly worth our acknowledgment.
I can appreciate that Marc has a better relationship with O'Reilly. In fact, when O'Reilly recently joked that Dr. Hill, a young black man, "kinda looks like a cocaine dealer," Marc handled the insult in stride. He cleverly replied by telling Bill that he looks like a cocaine user. I thought that was funny, really.
O'Reilly's off-hand remark also has deeper implications when it comes to the perceptions of black males and various forms of racial profiling. African American men are roughly seven times more likely than white males to go to prison in their lifetimes. In fact, the United States incarcerates 5.8 times more black men today than South Africa did during the height of Apartheid. Many of these men are incarcerated for drug-related crimes, ultimately undermining the stability of the African American family. The broader implication, reflecting the danger behind O'Reilly's nationally televised joke, is that these higher rates of incarceration are due to the fact that black males are more likely to be perceived as criminals than their white counterparts. In fact, many of the Fox News viewers probably would perceive Dr. Hill to be a drug dealer if he were on the street without his suit and tie on.
O'Reilly joking that Hill looks like a cocaine dealer is no different from me telling my Muslim friend that he looks like a terrorist. What might seem to be a small joke is actually far more serious since false accusations of terrorism cause tremendous amounts of trauma in Muslim communities everywhere. I can't laugh at O'Reilly's joke because I have seen the effects of this kind of racism and profiling play out in my own life. Dr. Hill has seen this up close as well, which is why I applaud his ability to laugh off O'Reilly's ignorant remark.
I won't ever be interested in maintaining a friendship with Bill O'Reilly, but I am glad that some of my peers, including Marc Lamont Hill and Rev. Al Sharpton, are able to work with him. I don't think for one second that their willingness to appear on 'Fox News' indicates any kind of ethical compromise on their part. It only reflects the fact that we need more black-owned media outlets to allow brilliant scholars and leaders like Hill and Sharpton to express their points of view. Some of us work from the inside and some work from the outside, but at the end of the day, it's all about progress. The clip is below if you'd like to watch:
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Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the author of the new book, "Black American Money." To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.