If there’s one person on cable news African-Americans trust to voice their concerns, it’s Bill O’Reilly. On his Fox News show Monday night, O’Reilly once again used his platform to highlight the issues facing the black community, by asking Donald Trump to explain what he plans to do for “minorities” as president.
“That’s the perception in the African-American precincts: that you’re a racial guy, that you don’t like them,” O’Reilly informed the GOP front-runner. “Is there a strategy that you have, or that your staff has to negate that?”
“My message is I’m gonna bring jobs back to the country,” Trump said. “The jobs have been taken out of the United States like we’re a bunch of babies. Like taking candy from a baby.”
“But what about the grievance industry, run by your friend Al Sharpton?” O’Reilly protested. “Where not only do you have to bring prosperity to all Americans, not just blacks, but we owe them because of the historical atrocities they’ve had to live through, their families, their ancestors.”
From anyone else, the use of the term “grievance industry” would seem like a crass attempt to discount the ways that slavery, Jim Crow, state-sponsored segregation, and deep-seated racial bias have created profound obstacles to black prosperity in the United States. But because of O’Reilly’s credibility on these subjects, I think it’s safe to say he was sincerely trying to get Trump to adopt a more intersectional conception of economic justice: Jobs programs alone will not be sufficient to bring racial parity to a nation where white high-school dropouts are as likely as black college graduates to be employed, and where black middle-class families have one-third of the wealth that white middle-class families do.
“I’m telling you, it’s an economic message,” Trump replied, undeterred. “If you look at President Obama, he’s been a president for almost eight years, it will be eight years, you have with black youth, with African-American youth, you have a 59 percent unemployment.”
“But how are you going to get jobs for them?” O’Reilly demanded. “Many of them are ill-educated and have tattoos on their foreheads, and I hate to be generalized about it, but it’s true.” It may sound like O’Reilly plucked these claims from thin air, but he immediately backed up his argument with “education statistics” and what he sees when he “drives up to Yankee Stadium.”
“It’s more challenging for a poor child in Harlem without parental guidance in a school that’s falling apart than it is for some white kid out in Garden City,” O’Reilly said, bravely. “You say you can bring jobs back, but if the kid isn’t qualified to do the job and can’t do the work — I mean — you’ve got to get into the infrastructure of the African-American community.”
Someone who doesn’t understand all that O’Reilly has done for black people in America might find these remarks “problematic.” From a certain angle, it almost sounds like O’Reilly never read his William Julius Wilson and thinks that our economy didn’t fail black people, but that black people failed our economy; or that African-American poverty is best attributed to some “cultural pathology” rather than to the contraction of economic opportunity that followed deindustrialization.
But knowing O’Reilly as we do, we can rest assured that he was referencing the growing body of evidence that emphasizes the importance of early childhood education and nutrition on later-life outcomes. The Fox News host was challenging Trump to put forth a comprehensive plan for ending the school-to-prison pipeline and the divestment from African-American communities that keeps young people from reaching their full potential.
“Well, it is true. It’s about education,” Trump acknowledged. “But it’s also about spirit. A lot of people don’t have spirit. Not only African-Americans, but we don’t have spirit in our country.”
But as Bill O’Reilly ably demonstrated, the spirit of adversarial journalism — the drive to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted — has never been stronger in this country than it is today. And with spirited advocates for the oppressed like O’Reilly, how can anyone make the argument that we need more diversity in cable news?