In the Name of God, the Kind, the Beautiful
I was quite shocked that Juan Williams said this publicly on the O’Reilly Factor:
“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.”
I find this somewhat ironic, since it was Juan Williams himself who wrote in 1986:
“Common sense becomes racism when skin color becomes a formula for figuring out who’s a danger to me”
Doesn’t a person’s “garb” count as the same thing? Apparently not, judging the swift and outraged response to the Williams firing. According to Alicia Shepard, NPR’s Ombudsman:
The overwhelming majority are angry, furious, outraged. They want NPR to hire him back immediately. If NPR doesn’t, they want all public funding of public radio to stop. They promise to never donate again. They are as mad as hell, and want everyone to know it. It was daunting to answer the phone and hear so much unrestrained anger.
Even politicians entered into the fray, with South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint introducing legislation to defund NPR and Public Television of federal funds. All over the Williams firing. Yet, I don’t recall any outrage when Rick Sanchez, Octavia Nasr, or Helen Thomas were fired over comments they had made. I don’t recall any legislation being introduced expressing the outrage of lawmakers at the “attack on free expression.” Doesn’t anyone else, besides Glenn Greenwald, see this double standard? Mr. Greenwald wrote:
And anyone doubting that there is a double standard when it comes to anti-Muslim speech should just compare the wailing backlash from most quarters over Williams’ firing to the muted acquiescence or widespread approval of those other firings.
Whis is this so?
Most likely because many Americans feel the same way. Even Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page admitted as much:
When I heard Williams confess to feeling a shiver of nervousness since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when he sees people in “Muslim garb” on an airplane, my initial thought was, heck, who doesn’t? We all have prejudices. Everybody “profiles” somebody or other. What matters is how well we put irrational prejudices aside in favor of good sense.
While his implicit acceptance of Williams’ “honest fears” bothered me a little, I do admit that he is correct. We all have our own prejudices, and just as Mr. Page said, it is what we do with these prejudices that matters most. And I commend his saying this:
But Williams’ nervousness about “Muslim garb” unfortunately sounded about as welcome to many ears as a white man complaining that he gets nervous when he sees young black males on a dark street at night. If it is doubtful that Fox would have embraced quite as enthusiastically a white man who was fired for speaking that view, it is only because prejudice against Muslims has become more socially acceptable than prejudice against blacks. It shouldn’t be.
That is the main point I am trying to make. I seriously doubt that anyone would defend an “honest” statement about being “nervous” and “worried” when seeing a young African-American male enter a restaurant. Rather, that statement would be roundly – and rightfully – condemned. If it is wrong to stereotype African-Americans, Jews, immigrants, homosexuals, or any other segment of society – which it is – then it is wrong to stereotype Muslims.
I hope and pray that, among the many lessons learned from this whole episode, that people will see that it is not right to stereotype Muslims as terrorists and thus get “nervous” and “worried” when they board a plane. I know that many people feel this way, and that makes me sad. But the way to remedy this is to get to know one another better. I hope and pray that this whole episode will help us do just that.