Editor’s Note: This post was written by Jarvis J. Williams, Ph.D. He is Associate Professor for New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The O’Reilly Factor
On Tuesday night of August 26, 2014, Mr. Bill O’Reilly, host of the O’Reilly Factor, offered an articulate (and on the surface a compelling) argument against the reality of white privilege in the United States. White privilege is the general idea that white people experience and have access to certain privileges, of which African-Americans (and other minority groups) do not have, simply because they are white. These white privileged advantages include (but should not be limited to) access to the best schools, the best housing, and the best jobs.
In classic O’Reilly fashion, he forcefully argued during his talking points memo the premise that white privilege is a myth by presenting (as he thought) hard statistical facts that militate against the idea of white privilege. He proffered statistics that support that white Americans have more two parent households than African-Americans, pursue education and graduate from high school at a higher statistical level than African-Americans, and make more money on average than African-Americans. Each of these facts, O’Reilly argued, supports that three fundamental reasons why African-Americans are socially disadvantaged in comparison to whites in this country are due to broken families, bad education, and unemployment. To support his thesis further, O’Reilly argued, since Asian American families on average have more two parent households than whites, a higher graduation rate than whites, and make more money than whites, one must also buy into the concept of Asian privilege if white privilege is true.
O’Reilly admitted that the effects of slavery and segregation on African-Americans in the United States have hindered many African-Americans from flourishing. However, O’Reilly quickly followed this acknowledgement by noting that this does not support white privilege. Instead, African-Americans who are socially and culturally disadvantaged in this country are largely to blame for their own disadvantages. As a result of these facts, O’Reilly argued that there is no such thing as white privilege.
O’Reilly’s analysis was keen, lucid, and straight to the point. As an African-American, I applaud the fact that he—a white man—boldly points out the many social and cultural problems within some African-American families as the reasons for many problems within certain African-American communities. His comments after the talking points memo about the negative impact of “gangsta rap” on African-American men were on target. His comments about the negative impact of African-American star, Beyoncé, on young African-American girls were insightful. And his criticisms of certain African-American leaders—such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson—were helpful.
However, O’Reilly’s analysis failed to see a crucial point: he thinks the way he thinks about white privilege, right down to the way that he interprets the statistical data to support his thesis against white privilege, because he is a white man who benefits from white privilege.
The Reality of White Privilege
In my view, O’Reilly’s memo did not prove the non-existence of white privilege. Instead, he simply supported that some African-Americans have often made bad decisions and those bad decisions have resulted in a disadvantaged social experience. Even if O’Reilly’s data were correct—but I must admit that I’m skeptical in light of Charles Blow’s, a New York Times columnist, immediate response to O’Reilly in his column—white privilege could (and does) co-exist alongside of the statistical data that O’Reilly presented to argue his thesis against white privilege.
For example, as a white man, O’Reilly will never suffer domestic violence from the hands of a white man because he is an African-American. As a white man, O’Reilly will never be followed by security in Macy’s because he is viewed as suspicious because he is an African-American. As a white man, O’Reilly will never be pulled over by a policeman because he is an African-American. As a white man, O’Reilly will never experience being identified as a Nigger, a coon, or by some other godless and racist category by racists because he is an African-American. As a white man, O’Reilly will never have a difficult time catching a cab because he is an African-American. As a white man, O’Reilly will never be denied a job, a promotion, or an opportunity to advance in society because he is an African-American. Therefore, his status as a white man privileges him at some level in a society that is dominated by a white majority, and his white identity protects him and guarantees that he will never suffer the same kind of social or cultural disadvantages and injustices in the United States as an African-American suffers.
I agree with Mr. O’Reilly in that some African-Americans are to blame for their social disadvantages. However, there are many hard-working and educated and responsible African-Americans who have multifariously and nefariously suffered social and cultural disadvantages and injustices precisely because they are African-Americans (e.g. segregation). And many hard-working, educated, and responsible white Americans have certain privileges at their fingertips in certain places in the United States precisely because they are white. Access to certain privileges because of one’s whiteness affirms the reality of “white privilege.”
As an African-American, I grew up in a racist part of Eastern Kentucky and suffered racism in that cultural context because many there privileged whiteness and thought that blackness was evil and inferior. For example, I could not go to certain towns if I wanted to live to see the next day because I am an African-American. I was socially ostracized by some because I am an African-American, and I was often the punch-line of many racist “colored jokes” because I am an African-American. However, I also benefited tremendously from white privilege in this same racist cultural context in Eastern Kentucky thanks to godly Christians who used their privilege to bless me. In 1996, I became the first African-American to join Hindman First Baptist Church in Hindman, Ky. This church used its privilege to help me both spiritually and financially.
A Gospel-Centered Response to Privilege
An appropriate gospel-centered response to the category of white privilege from those who are privileged is neither to deny the existence of white privilege nor to feel guilty because of privilege. Instead, privileged Christians (regardless of their race) should praise God for their privilege, and think prayerfully and carefully about how they can use their privilege in a God-honoring, Christ-exalting, and Spirit-filled way to advance God’s kingdom on earth and to make those less privileged happy in Jesus since Jesus used his divine and spiritual privilege to help those who were spiritually disadvantaged (2 Cor 8:9). Furthermore, Christian minorities who do not benefit from white privilege should neither covet it nor despise those who have it because they are white or benefit from it because they have access to privileged white people, but they should pray that God would use all of those to whom he has given privilege to help the many Christians without it. May God help both the privileged and the underprivileged to carry forth his will and kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.