Bill O'Reilly's Racist Distortion of History
October 18th, 2005
By Joel Wendland
On his October 4th radio show, Bill O'Reilly said the following:
O'REILLY: All right. But let me counter that, [caller], and you can comment on my comment. That's the prevailing wisdom in a lot of the precincts, is that because Blacks were in slavery in the United States, they were never able to develop an infrastructure of education and culture to compete with the white majority. That is the prevailing wisdom in lots and lots of places. Let me submit this to you, and then you can comment on it.
Unfortunately, O'Reilly's weak grasp of history went unchallenged on the air to thousands of listeners. While O'Reilly comes to no direct conclusion in this babble, his basic implication is clear: Irish people made it in America, so why can't Black people? The underlying code that remains unspoken: Black people are either biologically or culturally inferior to the Irish. Either the source of their "failure" lies within themselves and is attributed to the ill-defined concept of "race."
My people came from County Cavan in Ireland. All right? And the British Crown marched in there with their henchman, Oliver Cromwell, and they seized all of my ancestors' lands, everything. And they threw them into slavery, pretty much indentured servitude on the land. And then the land collapsed, all right? And everybody was starving in Ireland. They had to leave the country, just as Africans had to leave – African Americans had to leave Africa and come over on a boat and try to make in the New World with nothing. Nothing. And succeeded, succeeded. As did Italians, as did– and I'll submit to you, African Americans are succeeding as well. So all of these things can be overcome I think, [caller]. Go ahead.
O'Reilly's racist argument has deep roots in the ultra right. It is echoed daily by the likes of Bill Bennett who thought nothing of arguing that genocide against Black people would eliminate much crime. In his view, a view supported and praised by the right-wing magazine National Review, African Americans are predisposed to crime, a myth that they link to "race."
O'Reilly and Bennett's assumption that African Americans are themselves responsible for the negative affects of racism – race-based slavery, Jim Crow segregation, continuing job and housing discrimination, "racial profiling" in the criminal justice system, negative racial stereotypes in the media, etc. – and institutions they do not control that perpetuate the system of racial injustice is commonly referred to as "blaming the victim."
Blaming the victim is the natural instinct of the ultra right, for by shifting the source of social problems onto a group or individual, the real perpetrators and the system they control go unnoticed. Take the Hurricane Katrina disaster, for example. Specifically, after the disaster in New Orleans, which no one doubts was tied to racism, Bush administration officials openly blamed New Orleans residents for the catastrophe that befell them. This opinion, echoed by the right-wing media, suggested that funding cuts that moved funds away from rebuilding and bolstering New Orleans' levee system, a problem widely recognized by disaster experts and engineers, to pay for tax cuts for the rich, the war in Iraq, and pork barrel spending in rich, mostly white districts of Republican congressional leaders was not to blame for the tragedy.
The "blame the victim" tactic ignores history and reality. It ignores decades of racial segregation that forced Black working-class families into New Orleans' 9th Ward. It ignores economic hardship and unemployment that disproportionately affect African Americans which kept them there in the conditions that prevailed in late August 2005. It ignores racial biases that motivated emergency teams to ignore them in the 9th Ward for days after the city flooded. O'Reilly's argument implies that people up to their neck in disease infested water, with no transportation, hemmed in by armed vigilantes and unsympathetic law enforcement officers, and lacking food and water should be able to save themselves. After all those folks with SUVs, who didn't live near the worst flooding, and who were lucky enough to be prioritized by rescue teams made it.
The failure to address existing inequality is deeply embedded in O'Reilly's view of the "success" of Irish Americans. First of all, his blanket statement about Irish American success ignores the reality of poverty and economic hardship and struggle that many Irish Americans continue to experience. If working-class Irish Americans figure into his thoughts at all, his argument implies that despite their racial/cultural affiliations, they too are somehow backward and to blame for an economy that has left them behind. O'Reilly's anti-working class attitude is only outdone by his anti-Black racism.
Let's look at some history of which O'Reilly is willfully ignorant. He is partially correct. British imperialist policies in Ireland forced many Irish people into migration to the US. This dynamic, however, is not the same as a systematic effort by colonial countries to kidnap millions of Africans for the slave trade, during which, historians estimate, as many as 10 million were murdered. Many Irish immigrants came as indentured servants during the colonial period, but the vast majority of Irish immigrants to the US came in the early decades of the 19th century, after the US was established as an independent country, after it had long abolished indentured servitude and established racial slavery, and during the rise of industrial capitalism. These are important facts that O'Reilly unsurprisingly gets wrong.
Indentured servitude was indeed a harmful system that many laborers couldn't survive because of the harsh conditions and poor health care. In fact, though the system was temporary, lasting only a few years, most servants simply died due to overwork or abuse. Two key differences with slavery, however, that O'Reilly fails to mention: indentured servants, if they survived, could become landowners, slaves could not. Also, while indentured servants were brutalized, they were not property per se and were not held in perpetuity except under fraudulent conditions.
While the land for labor trade-off most often did not result in class mobility for the servant (due to death or fraud), it did for many. An important point, however, that O'Reilly conveniently forgets in order to fit his argument is that by 1700 or so, in most of the colonies, racial slavery was exclusive to Black people and was a permanent condition for being Black. At about the same time, indentured servitude was eliminated as a key source of labor and quickly disappeared as a practice. The point is that relying, as O'Reilly does, on the indentured servitude argument to compare the experiences of the Irish immigrants with people of African descent fails. Indentured servants had some chance for success. The fact of racism and racialized slavery meant that Black people had no chances.
But, as pointed out earlier, the experience of the vast majority of Irish immigrants to the US had little to do with indentured servitude. The bulk – 5 and 1/2 million – Irish people came to the US between 1815 and 1920. Yes, they experienced major hardships upon their arrival. Still developing racial attitudes in the US even categorized Irish immigrants as racially similar to Blacks. Images of Irish immigrants in popular magazines as late as the 1860s and 1870s depict them as only partially evolved, apelike and even dark-skinned. Irish workers, never enslaved, came as manual laborers, poorly paid, excluded, discriminated against, segregated – often into Black ghettoes – on the whole, near the bottom of the class/race hierarchy in America.
In fact, in this early period, Irish working-class immigrants, as did many whites of various nationalities, identified with Black people. ‘Whiteness," if it could be said to have had any meaning, was closely linked to economic success and wealth. White people often participated in a friendly way in Black festivals and other public events. Irish immigrants and other whites regularly intermarried or started interracial families with African Americans. One might say that for a time working people ignored racial divisions because they didn't believe trivial differences like skin color meant more than the very real experienced differences they felt between themselves and the rich and powerful.
So what changed all of this? How is it that the destiny of the two groups diverged so strongly? O'Reilly implies that it was because of the racial/biological/culture patterns and characteristics, which African Americans lack, that caused Irish immigrants (and other European immigrants) to "succeed."
But let's look at the facts. At some point in the early 19th century, white working-class people stopped proudly identifying with Blacks and other non-whites as the class underdog and began to distinguish themselves as "white," as "real" Americans, and used their racial identity to make demands on a society that had long excluded them from political, economic, or cultural power.
Some historians, whom O'Reilly no doubt has many excuses for not reading, link this transformation to the emergence of industrial capitalism with its factory system that tied working people for the first time to a single place, a single boss, and a single work regime. Others link the transformation to the expansion of the US into Indian lands and Mexico in the West, the consequent emergent national identity heavily dependent on racial codes and idioms for its meaning. The truth is that both played a big role.
Many white working-class people resisted factory labor. They believed, like Thomas Jefferson, that land was the source of individual freedom. They saw factory labor and wage labor in general as "slavery." Many explicitly compared it to racial slavery institutionalized in the South. Wage labor, in their view was good enough for Irish immigrants but not for white Americans. In fact, this particular response to wage labor played a role in the racialization of Irish people as "like" Blacks.
Unfortunately for non-elite Americans, industrial capitalism, not farming, was the wave of the future. During the 19th century, many whites who had believed in the Jeffersonian ideal, were forced into the degrading position of entering the wage labor force and submitting to the system of wage slavery. To fight back, many organized labor unions, but, in general, they changed the rhetorical rules of the game. They rejected the term "slave" and adopted more positive terms with which to identify themselves. In so doing, they noted that a slave was Black, and they were not. Being white, they deserved better treatment than a slave.
They had not created the system of white supremacy, nor would most of them reap huge rewards from it. It was always the bosses who profited from white supremacy by using racial and ethnic and national differences to divide workers, weaken their unions, break their strikes, and force down their wages. Nevertheless, white workers of various nationalities adapted to white supremacy as a general response to the social ills and new kind of exploitation they experienced with the rise of industrial capitalism.
Yes, there were many white people in the mid-19th century who rejected the division of the working class based on race. Mainly they were socialists and union activists ideologically and organizationally affiliated with Karl Marx and his friends. Some were ordinary abolitionists, social reformers and union activists like the writer and critic of capitalist George Lippard, and the abolitionists Wendell Philips, Charles Sumner, or William Lloyd Garrison and the movements they led. (Philips, Sumner, and Garrison eventually joined Marx's international workers' organization.) But many white working people came to accept white supremacy as the ruling ideology and reflected this fact in their organizations, unions, and living habits. They refused any longer to associate (or intermarry) with non-whites and ostracizing (even lynching) those who did.
And at first, they added Irish immigrants to their system of racially based exclusion. But Irish immigrants, too, fought back. They said, hey we're white, too. Thus, we're real Americans, and we deserve fair treatment. Irish American workers, who had been early on relegated to the working class jobs nobody wanted had their foot in the door by the time it became clear that industrial capitalism had defeated any hopes for most people to become landed elites. By the 1870s Irish American workers dominated many trades in many Northern urban areas and were major sections of much of the new factory labor. Anti-Irish bigotry in the early 19th century had by the turn of the new century put them in a position to do well economically and politically.
One key institution that Irish American working people favored and built well was the labor union. The late 19th century saw the rise of unions in industry and trades, and Irish immigrants and Irish American workers were a key part of that. Irish-descended workers rose to leadership and other influential positions in the trade union movement rapidly.
While O'Reilly isn't likely to acknowledge the importance of trade unions in the history of Irish American working people (or for any group, for that matter), he is less likely to mention the even more rarely acknowledged fact of the role of racism in this history. White workers, including the Irish, fought to exclude Black and other non-white workers, first from unions, then from whole industries.
Irish workers, for example, angry over an unfair draft law that allowed the wealthy to escape military service during the Civil War rioted at a federal building in New York City. Their anger quickly turned on Blacks who, they articulated, were the cause of the war and as racial inferiors were not worth dying for. During the riot, Irish American workers made a point of marching to the city's docks and demanding that shipping and transportation companies fire or refuse to hire Black dockworkers.
Three thousand miles away, Irish American workers were among the westward bound immigrants to cities like San Francisco, where they encountered large numbers of Chinese immigrants in the tobacco industry, some factory labor, and other trades. Back east, Irish immigrants made up large numbers of the tobacco industry workforce and were leaders in the unions that had organized it. Here they found, Chinese workers taking "American" jobs. Because, the Chinese were not white, they could not be "real" Americans, said the Irish tobacco workers. These jobs, they claimed, belong to "real" Americans, white people – to "us" – they insisted. So they fought to exclude the Chinese workers by law and by force. Irish American workers were among those who organized anti-Chinese clubs whose aim was to call boycotts of companies that employed Chinese workers. They repeatedly petitioned the state assembly to bar Chinese immigration and to legalize job discrimination. Anti-Chinese sentiment became so intense that race riots, led by Irish American workers against the Chinese broke out in many coastal cities from San Diego to Tacoma in the 1880s.
With the growing strength of labor in many Northeastern cities came its influence on and role in municipal politics. Irish Americans were there. By the turn of the 20th century, Irish Americans politicians whose roots were in the working class, were major players in cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. They applied an Irish American affirmative action as result, hiring Irish owned construction companies for city building contracts, for example, or hiring Irish firefighters and police as political patronage, and so on. By the turn of the 20th century, 30 percent of municipal workers in the above mentioned cities were Irish Americans. In many cities, Irish Americans were a major sections of the unionized skilled labor force, providing a new generation with an economic basis for social mobility as families were more and more able to send their children to the universities and into the professions.
Yes, there was success for some Irish Americans. Yes, it was based on hard work and a protracted struggle against grinding exploitation and oppression. Note, however, that "success" resulted not from an individual struggle, but a collective process. Also, note that group "success," in O'Reilly's outlook, deliberately ignores the collectivity of the gains made and the fact that the "success" of some within the group comes at the expense of the lack of success by others. Deep class divisions remain. O'Reilly also measures "success" not by the empowerment of working people as a whole, but by the rare individual escape from exploitation. In O'Reilly's view, individual success is the marker of group success.
While African Americans have often celebrated the successes of particular individuals in their communities, for example Joe Louis' defeat of various white boxing opponents touted as one "great white hope" or another, their celebrations seem to have more to do with symbolic victories over the system of white supremacy rather than an individualistic self-delusion that Louis liberated them or even himself.
O'Reilly encourages the view that history really doesn't matter, that the whole history of white supremacy in the US has little or no role in who he is or who I am. But, and this is the decisive fact that O'Reilly conveniently and willfully ignores, the success of white people (of any white ethnic group) was also based on white supremacy and the very real social benefits they won from being white.
Meanwhile, the majority of African Americans continued to live in a society (the South) that, even after outlawing slavery, had legalized racial apartheid. While the Irish Americans were moving on up, all African Americans continued to live in a society that racially prescribed rights, access to jobs, access to business and property ownership, political power and so on – all of the things some Irish Americans and other whites came to enjoy even if only in limited ways. Even when segregation laws were torn down, practices of segregation in housing, in the distribution of benefits, political power, and so on remained. African Americans could never say, "we're white, too." They couldn't even say with any lasting effect, we're "real" Americans, too.
Throughout US history, African Americans fought, along with many whites (again generally from the political left), for inclusion, access to jobs, an end to discrimination, civil rights, political rights, economic rights and more, winning many gains. Many Irish Americans fought alongside Blacks and other non-whites for social justice throughout US history. Terrence V. Powderly headed the country's first racially integrated national union, the Knights of Labor in the 1880s. William Z. Foster and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn were leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World, a nationwide union that fought to organize workers across ethnic and racial lines. Foster and Flynn also went on to be leaders of the Communist Party. Mother Jones and Tom Mooney also count among the great Irish American labor leaders. The great distinction from O'Reilly's interpretation of success for these heroes, however, is that did not fight for individual success or Irish American success. They fought for the empowerment of all working people, and they knew that the success of any individual or group required the success of all.
I know what O'Reilly's response would be to this article: Wendland hates white people. He is a self-loathing white liberal, O'Reilly would mock, who wants to impose racial guilt on us for our success. This view is silly, of course, but it needs to be addressed. People who want to ignore racism because they don't want to feel guilty need to grow up. Don't stick your fingers in your ears when someone brings historical facts to you and says, look, things have to change. It is childish and imbecilic. If we accept that our society needs to improve, we need to accept the real story of how it became what it is. People who refuse the truth are rejecting change. Sometimes it is because they have benefited or profited from the status quo. Mostly, it is because they think that somewhere down the line they will benefit. There is nothing inherently or naturally racist about being white or Irish (or any white ethnicity), but ignoring historical truth with defensive demagoguery (like O'Reilly's) does not exempt us.
Unfortunately, the true beneficiaries of racial divisions continue to be corporations and the ruling elites that drive wages down by devaluing the work of people who are not white and are treated as second class. Today, this dynamic is still aimed at Black workers but also very intensely directed towards immigrant workers of color. By forcing such strong divisions between non-white and white working people that they don't get along well enough to organize unions or powerful political coalitions, ruling elites avoid meaningful changes. It is no accident that at a time of deep racial division in our society labor is at one of the weakest points in its history. Capitalists have always understood this dynamic, and O'Reilly is their tool for aiding the project of division and discord.
So let's reject O'Reilly's distortion of history. Most working people truly want an equal and just society undivided by race or economic differences. It is the getting there that differentiates us. But, if we can accept that collective struggle and work is the source of group and individual success, why not adopt a collective, multi-racial (and anti-sexist and anti-homophobic) outlook of our struggle? Why not accept that working people of all nationalities and ethnic groups should work together and further each other's particular interests as well as our class interests as a whole? We should fight for immigrant rights, bilingual rights, affirmative action, voting rights, gender equality, acceptance and tolerance of difference, equal access and equal protection, and so on. We should fight for the multi-racial coalitions needed to win those things. These are points of unity rather than divisions. If we are all going to "succeed," then we can't afford to rely on O'Reilly's prescription for business as usual when it comes to "race."
O'Reilly's slant on the past has gotten us nothing but continued division, deepened racism, more squabbling, and pure disaster. Let's write our own future.
Historical sources O’Reilly ought to read:
Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror
David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness
Alexander Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic
---, The Indispensible Enemy
Philip S. Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker
Michael Goldfield, The Color of Politics
--Reach Joel Wendland at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission from the author from: