Juan Williams should have been fired – by NPR AND Fox News. And a preponderance of evidence and a logical benefit of the doubt indicates that it is Clarence Thomas who should apologize to Anita Hill. However, in the bizzaro world of Williams and Thomas, presided over by the likes of that always useful idiot Sarah Palin, Tea Party political guide Senator Jim DeMint, and other conservative leaders, no such regrets will be forthcoming.
For the never-less-than shrill conservatives, a great wrong has been done to Williams and Thomas led by a leftist cabal that includes the socialist mainstream media, paid or duped agents of the left, and inevitably will include President Obama. NPR has been characterized suddenly as a sort of Marxist front whose government funding, which amounts to two percent of its total budget, should be immediately cut. In the conservative’s world, anything and anyone left of Dick Cheney is a Bolshevik, terrorist, or both.
Some commentators, including Slate’s William Saletan, have attempted to draw a parallel between the firing of Williams for statements he made during an interview on Fox and the dismissal of former Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod. That bird does not fly. First, Sherrod was fired almost instantly before there was any review of the doctored clip by Agriculture or White House officials of her alleged racist remarks. In contrast, NPR waited two days before finally doing the right thing. Sherrod’s record prior to the incident had been stellar while Williams, whose hiring had upset a number of NPR staffers, had been previously warned about his appearance on Fox. In fact, he had been asked to no longer identify himself with NPR when appearing on Fox after he had disparagingly referred to Michelle Obama as “Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress” in a January 2009 appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show.
Sherrod’s statements were deliberately taken out of context by right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart and purposefully meant to portray her as a racist. Williams’ remarks even in the whole context of his interview did not lose their prejudicial elements. There are a number of assumptions in Williams’ statements that bear analysis. He refers to “Muslim garb” signaling a distain for clothing that he finds different from western wear. His tone imbues contempt. (Oh, by the way, none of the September 11 terrorists, the shoe bomber, the dirty bomb bomber, the Times Square bomber, or the underpants bomber were wearing Muslim garb.) As usual, racial profiling is not only morally wrong, it is not the most effective way to conduct security or policing.
Williams further explained that by wearing the garb “you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims.” How Williams is able to determine that everyone he sees in “Muslim garb” is, first of all a Muslim, and second, that they foremost identify themselves as a Muslim (as opposed to an American, a woman, a professor, or a basketball player) must mean that he possesses extra-sensory talents that are remarkable indeed. Of course, he does not. He was simply displaying a pre-disposition to make judgments that targeted at any other group would be unquestionably viewed as racist.
Think Progress reports that NPR had a long-standing policy, which Williams signed off on, that stated that all journalists and contracted analysts cannot “express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist.” The policy also stated that such analysts could not “participate in shows…that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.” Williams violated both of these rules.
Yet, instead of doing like NPR and sacking Williams, he was rewarded by Fox with a $2 million dollar contract, which I doubt is to provide objective analysis and commentary. In fact, his expanded position is to be the black Bill O’Reilly, a dark loincloth for the station’s racist and discriminatory rants. He will be, as he was often at the Washington Post and elsewhere, the black hitman for all things African American or colored. “I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country” will begin each sentence before he launches into a right-wing diatribe attacking Obama, Jackson, Al Sharpton, Maxine Waters, or any other black figure deemed liberal let alone leftist. Someone should tell Williams that writing about civil rights does not make him a civil rights icon, a civil rights defender, or grant him representative status.
Some conservatives have argued that there is a double standard being applied by the left. They cite Jesse Jackson’s 1993 remarks when he stated, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery—then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” Truth is, Jackson’s remarks were bigoted and he was called out on it at the time. And if he had been working for NPR at the time as a contracted analyst, it would have been appropriate to fire him, too.
As NPR wrote in a statement regarding Williams, “His remarks on ‘The O’Reilly Factor’ this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.” Of course they do. What Muslim or for that matter any person of conscious will take any reporting on Islam or Middle East politics by Williams seriously after his remarks. Who in the Muslim community, in their Muslim garb, would trust a reporter who is on the record as being “nervous” and “worried” in their presence?
Media Matters points out that Fox News has a long history of intolerant remarks against Islam and Muslims, many made this past year that are not dissimilar from those of Williams. On the October 15 edition of "Fox & Friends," host Brian Kilmeade falsely stated, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.” On October 18, O’Reilly stated, “[T]here is a Muslim problem in the world.” On the August 20 edition of Fox & Friends Fox legal analyst Peter Johnson Jr. stated, New York Muslims should “give up their rights” in order to be “good neighbors.” On August 18, "Fox & Friends" guest Walid Shoebat asked, “If Islam is not playing the major role in Antichrist spirit, why do you think the devil wants to appoint somebody connected to Islam in the White House?” The comment went unchallenged. And on and on it goes.
Williams is not the only black conservative drawing support from his white counterparts. For those who thought that Clarence Thomas was the chief nutcase in the Thomas household, Virginia Thomas has dramatically disabused that notion. Unlike her husband who can sit for years hearing cases before the Supreme Court and not utter a single word, apparently Ginni Thomas can’t shut up. Her out-of-nowhere call to Hill demanding an apology is of course more revealing about the audacity of a closed mind than the truth about Hill’s charges. Not satisfied with being exposed by the New York Times and other analysts about an unseemly conflict-of-interest between her conservative campaign to stop what she terms Obama’s tyranny and her husband’s position to facilitate that objective, she ups the ante by rehashing the Thomas-Hill controversy. If one can believe that she has perhaps some iota of rationality left in her brain and that the call had a strategic purpose and was not just a spontaneous moment of venom and long-suppressed rage, then the picture becomes a little clearer.
While many, if not most, would rather chew off a finger than revisit the Thomas-Hill drama, it is conceivable that Ginni wanted to remind conservatives that the liberal destruction machine was still out there and what better example than the failed conspiracy to stop the elevation of the most consistent conservative on the Court. Surely, some of us believe that Clarence Thomas will easily go down as one of, if the worst, members ever to put on a black robe. Yet, he is not only a darling to the far right, but a central figure in their ability to force an ultra-conservative politics on the nation. From his vote that helped elevate George W. Bush to the White House to his vote in the pivotal “Citizens United” decision, and hundreds in-between, he has profoundly taken the country down darker and darker roads. Ginni’s phone call and the subsequent media coverage two weeks before the critical mid-term elections reminds conservatives that they must turn out in large numbers if they are to maintain and extend the type of policies that Clarence Thomas propels.
Meanwhile, her organization, Liberty Central, scandalously accepts anonymous donations that clearly come from conservative backers who benefited from the Citizens United decision. That decision changed the metrics of the 2010 campaigns and will reverberate far into the future. The privatization of public elections is well on its way.
Finally, it should be noted that Williams and Thomas have been linked for at least two decades. During his days as a Post reporter in 1991, Williams came to Thomas’ defense after Hill’s explosive charges threatened to derail the nomination. He wrote that Anita Hill had “no credible evidence” and wrongly charged that she had been “prompted” by Democratic Senate staffers to make her accusations. His admiration for Thomas has continued over the years. Following Obama’s election, Williams wrote in the Wall Street Journal that his victory, along with the achievements of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Clarence Thomas, signaled “the end of an era for black politics,” i.e., the Jacksons and Sharptons of the world would become nostalgia. Williams’ framework, however, fails to explain the close working relationship that has developed between Obama and Sharpton.
Beyond his political defense of Thomas the two have more in common than Williams wants us to remember. Around the time of the Thomas hearings, Williams was disciplined by the Washington Post for his own sexual harassment issues involving women at the paper. As journalist Bonnie Erbe notes, he was disciplined by the Post and forced to admit publicly that he engaged in “wrong” and “inappropriate” conduct. At one point, more than 100 Post newsroom employees sent a letter to the paper’s management challenging statements made by Willams downplaying the complaints against him. According to the Dallas Morning News, the situation was so dire that he was forced “to sit in an isolated part of the newsroom where he could be watched at all times.” He left the paper eventually.
Conservative attacks on NPR have little to do with the substance of the case involving Williams and more to do with what is perceived to be an opening to attack non-right-wing media. Palin, DeMint and others hope to chill any news coverage that does not favor their extremist agenda even if that means left-baiting NPR. Along with Ginni Thomas, they seek any opportunity to mobilize their base against real or imagined liberal bias or progressive advancement. Williams and Thomas both sold their soul to the right-wing devil many moons ago. No tears should be shed for either one let alone any offer of apologies.
CLARENCE LUSANE is a Professor at American University and the former editor of the journal Black Political Agenda. He is author of several books, including Pipe Dream Blues: Racism and the War on Drugs, Hitler’s Black Victims and The Black History of the White House in the Open Media Series by City Lights Books.