Sunday, January 9, 2011

Fallout from the NPR Juan Williams Firing

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to spend some work-related time in New York City. I'm originally from the country, a dairy farmer's son, but now I love cities and enjoyed every moment in the Big Apple.

One Saturday morning I decided to walk Fifth Avenue as far as I could go. I began in midtown Manhattan, walked all along Central Park, and continued North until I was well into Harlem. At about 120th street - I don't remember where exactly - I realized I was in unfamiliar territory. Words we don't use much anymore, such as "slums" and "the ghetto" came to mind. It seemed as if I was the only white person in sight. I felt uncomfortable, turned around, and quickly scurried back.

Psychiatrists say that feelings are neither good nor bad - they are simply an expression of our emotional state at the moment we have them. Were my feelings of discomfort in Harlem justified? Probably not. Do they indicate that I am a racist? I hope not. Would I have those same feelings if I walked those streets today? I doubt it.

Apparently it is not safe in America anymore to publicly express personal feelings. When NPR veteran reporter Juan Williams said in October that he felt uncomfortable in an airport when he saw Muslims dressed in traditional garb, it cost him his job. Last week NPR senior vice-president Ellen Weiss was forced to resign for the clumsy way in which she handled his firing.

Here's what I find interesting. Juan Willians was raised in Brooklyn's rough-and-tumble Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He probably would not have felt the discomfort I felt walking Fifth Avenue through Harlem. I, on the other hand, lived in the Middle East for years and never felt uncomfortable on an aircraft surrounded by Muslim men wearing traditional clothing. If it happened to me here in the States, rather than being afraid I'd probably engage them in conversation.

The discomfort we both felt was, I would guess, at least partly due to the fact that we were in an unfamiliar situation, a little out of our comfort zone. I would hope that no one would interpret my feelings to assume that I was racist, and I think it is very unfortunate that Juan Willians lost his job after expressing his.

NPR Vice President Ellen Weiss took the fall recently for firing Williams over the telephone. She handled it clumsily, the top brass said, not professionally, so she had to go as well. The real tragedy is not that Williams said what he felt, or whether he was fired in person or over the telephone, or that Weiss also took the blame. It is that all CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, had to do was call NPR as soon as they heard Juan Williams' comments on FOX and express their "deep concern" that he might be "Islamophobic" (in quotes because it is only a cleverly-invented word intended for occasions such as this), and his comments could be "fear-mongering".  That NPR would be so fearful of CAIR's bluster that it would immediately call Juan Williams to inform him he was history is the real tragedy.


Susanne said...

good point!

Traeh said...

I don't know how it is now in Harlem. I gather it's gentrifying rapidly. Furthermore, race relations seem to improve noticeably by the decade. In my life time I've witnessed perhaps four phases of improvement over some fifty years. Even a mere fifteen years ago, race relations were significantly less good, less integrated and harmonious. In the 1970s and 80s race relations were a comparative hell to what they are today, and a white person would be taking his life in his hands to walk through Harlem, even during the day. I lived on the Upper West Side, and had some familiarity with life in those parts back then.

The pop culture reflects and drives these rapid changes. A mere fifteen years ago, white singers adopting black musical styles or especially modes of speech sometimes provoked a certain amount of ridicule and accusations of phoniness. Today, one almost constantly finds black styles of singing and diction and manner profoundly influencing white artists, and no doubt vice versa, so much so, that the white artists no longer seem affected or mannered, and the style no longer even seems black. Probably many kids today don't even realize that part of the manner of some white singer they love was once a black manner. Yes, this crossover goes all the way back to Elvis, but not in the adoption of diction, as one finds today. One single culture has been created, to an increasing extent. The United States is indeed in many ways a powerful melting pot, despite the doubts people have often expressed about the validity of that metaphor for social processes here.

But I don't think your use of the term "feelings" is quite right. The fear that people feel in the situations you describe is not primarily about being outside one's "comfort zone" in unfamiliar surroundings. It's about objective reality. It's a fact that the black violent street crime rate, certainly in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, was far higher than violent street crime rates among whites. That doesn't mean it has anything to do with black genetics or any inherent inferiority. Black people were living under the horrors of Jim Crow apartheid for a century up till the 1960s. Before that, they had been abused as slaves for centuries. That social setting can explain street crime and violence and make it to some extent understandable, but we shouldn't go so far as to pretend that street violence is not happening, and the only reason a white person is afraid to tread through a black neighborhood is "feelings" of "unfamiliarity" or some sort of cultural xenophobia.

I also think you are probably mistaken that Juan Williams would feel no discomfort walking through Harlem -- at least the Harlem of not long ago. I can recall some public figure African Americans who have said they breathed a sigh of relief when walking down the street at night they saw a group of people approaching and saw they were not blacks. Again, this is not about any false notion that blacks are racially inferior. It's about a social history of oppression of black people, and it's also perhaps about African source cultures, things that are spiritual, not physical, and that can change and advance.

The point is, white fear has often not been due to racism. Crime statistics are objective facts, as almost any young male, of whatever race, who lived in Manhattan in the 1970s and 80s knows in his flesh from everyday experience in those days.

Quotable Quotes: said...

Traeh, I appreciate your comments and have no disagreement with most of what you say. I would still argue that feeling nervous when you see someone getting on an aircraft wearing Muslim garb is perhaps due to unfamiliarity and does not necessarily reflect a lack of understanding of the reality of Jihad. I probably think critically about Islam more than most people, but because of my having lived in the Middle East I would not transfer that to feeling uncomfortable about a woman sitting next to me in an airplane wearing a burkah. Now if I discovered she was a man in disguise, that might be a different story!

ctw said...

Oh, Staring-at-the-View, the main difference you don't mention is that you would have been smart enough to recognize these things and would not have made such a comment in the first place. It's the intricacies that screwed Juan Williams, the thought that he could say anything on FOX that came to his mind. To see the real deal one must now watch Juan Williams on FOX and see what his thinking is now that his paycheck is in question.