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Blind to White Privilege and Blinded by White Privilege: A Response to Bill O’Reilly

Jemar Tisby

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.

30 thoughts on “Blind to White Privilege and Blinded by White Privilege: A Response to Bill O’Reilly

  1. Chip Chambers

    As a white, reformed Christian, this was incredibly helpful. Thank you for not ostracizing me with harsh rhetoric, but helping me to see where you’re coming from. I pray that we have more leaders like you who will help us stubborn, slow, white folk come around. I don’t completely understand white privilege, but I’m not sure I ever will. I just know it exists. Your comment on not feeling guilty, but rather using it for His glory, was one of the most helpful things I’ve read. Thank you, brother.

  2. Phil

    I linked to this article in some thoughts on white privilege over on my blog.

    I think I understand different perspectives, but it’s a challenge, especially when I muddied the water by referring to the Daniele Watts story from this week.

  3. Sara

    If that’s your definition of freedom then Lord please help us. It’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness not free healthcare, free education and every other kind of freebie that people think the gov’t should hand out.

  4. Stephen Schaper

    “…America, the best nation in the world when it comes to freedom for people…”
    3 important factors in quality of life and freedom:
    Economic freedom = 12th in the world
    Healthcare = 37th in the world (pre Obamacare)
    Education = Math 25th out of 34 tested, Reading 14th, science 17th

    These types of blanket statements that are, well, wrong give further challenges to the notion that you are able to see outside of your own experience.

  5. Stephen Schaper

    I wonder if ripping families apart during slavery, or the disproportionate incarceration rate of African American males, or the government infusing urban communities with crack cocaine in the 80s has anything to do with the problems you’ve mention. White on white crime is statistically the same as black on black crime.

    When did the Irish, Polish, etc get enslaved in their land and brought to the United States? They were mistreated (even though they were never 3/5 of a human being by law), but they were not slaves or enslaved. They came. Slaves were brought. The plight is not the same.

    I’m not sorry that your comfort has been inconvenienced with the words white privilege. Good thing you don’t have to live it every day like our African American brothers and sisters, because then you’d be really upset… you might even protest or riot.

  6. Stephen Schaper

    The police protected Officer Wilson (didn’t reveal his name for weeks / gave him paid leave). The police killed Michael Brown. The system is designed to protect police. The police as an institution is designed to serve and protect the community, but for many minorities it exploits ( and mistreats those it is to protect.

    There was no systemic and systematic injustice done to Officer Wilson.

  7. Sara

    I’m not attacking you. What I’m expressing is the frustration that I and other whites feel when people (not just blacks) especially pastors of mega churches start bashing us about our “privilege”. I’m not saying you are doing this but this has been rampant since Ferguson.

    Let me speak on what is underlying this frustration and why a lot of whites roll their eyes and think, “Man, I don’t have time for this discussion…I gotta go to work and try to make ends meet.”

    What I’m expressing is the frustration that I grew up middle class so did my husband but because of the economy and the growing number of welfare recipients feeding off the tax payers our American dream is dwindling. My children will not grow up the way we did and that’s okay it’s life and I’ve accepted that.

    What I want you to understand is that for the past 6 yrs under this president white, Christian, rural people have been treated like we are a bunch of crazy murderous racists out to get the world. We have an Attorney General who is grossly biased in his actions and words towards whites, a Federal gov’t gone rogue, inflation rising and then…Ferguson. You take that and add the pressure of a very bad economy and then top it with Matt Chandler and others like him harping about “white privilege” and it’s too much to take.

    Frankly I don’t think about race relations too much, why? Because my husband and I are just trying to keep our heads above water financially. We would like to buy a home someday, we would like our children to go to college, I would like to go grocery shopping and not have to put stuff back because there is no money left. I also think there is a growing gap between rural and urban people of all colors and how we view the world is vastly different.

    What I’m trying to say is this country is in trouble, serious trouble financially and if the bottom falls out it won’t matter what color you are when people lose their jobs, homes and can’t put food on the table. So yeah there’s racism, always has been, always will be that’s life.

    We will never end it because of our fallen natures but I don’t believe that a person of color can’t get ahead in this country because of idiots who don’t like the color of their skin. Too many blacks have broken that stereotype and become some of the most respected and prosperous Americans in our country. Good for them, their hard work paid off and they deserve every thing they have. I don’t envy them, quite the contrary, I admire them and they encourage me and my family that hard work and Godly character can bring success in America.

  8. Tyshan Broden

    Geeze, sorry. I get you are frustrated. No racist didnt come to mind because you are right Im probably biased because I am a black female with very black experiences and live in black culture. Black middle class culture, not black working class culture. You have a story to tell. You have serious struggle under your belt, Im not trying to take that from you. Please dont attack me because of my experiences, just like I wont attack you for yours.

  9. Sara

    I know what you are saying but listen to what you said at the end: “you must be blind because I see it everyday”. What makes your view on this more valid than mine or O’Reilly’s. I could just as easily say that you being a black woman means that you are biased and see things that aren’t there. Don’t you see this?

    If I say, “Hey you’re black so your view is skewed and you just can’t see this situation right”, how would you take that. Please don’t tell me that the word racist doesn’t pop into mind. But you can say the same about O’Reilly and it’s somehow okay because he’s white and in the majority and therefore it’s open season on him.

    When people shout “white privilege” to me I just walk away because they haven’t taken the time to get to know me, to know my family or to understand where they came from. The didn’t know my grandparents who grew up poor without running water or electricity on a pig farm without the benefits of an education because they lived in a time and place that couldn’t provide it….where was their “privilege” when my grandfather got passed over for jobs because he couldn’t read because of dyslexia or take his lack of medical care which led to him dropping dead at 53 working in a lumber mill in his son’s arms.

    When my husband finally went to college in his late 20’s because his employer shut down, we struggled…. hard. We lived on $800 a month and guess what, we didn’t qualify for welfare because we were married and he worked. So those minorities and whites who didn’t work, had multiple children out of wedlock, lied about their assets and had cell phones, tv’s and new clothes got free food, medical, daycare and housing.

    While we lived on $800 a month and had to hock everything but our underwear to make it month to month. We had no cell phone, no tv, no new clothes, one car (with over 100k miles), eating rice and beans, getting our electric cut off and hoping that we didn’t get sick because we didn’t have insurance or Medicaid to cover our expenses. We went over 4 yrs without going to the doctor or dentist because there was no money.

    That was our life and yet where was our “privilege”. I’ll tell you where our “privilege” went, it went to those folks at the welfare office and taken out of my husband’s check. THIS is why a lot of white people can’t stand to hear about “white privilege” because we are paying for a whole lot of stuff for people who chose to have sex out of marriage and get pregnant or not marry or not work and it’s getting old.

    This insistence that if I as a white person don’t acknowledge my “white privilege” then I’ll never understand how it really is here will only keep dividing black and white Christians. That’s where the offense comes into play. Try seeing from my perspective for once.

  10. Tyshan Broden

    Sorry if I offended you. I was definitely speaking on the isolated incident of how I truly believe and see that white privilege exists and how I believe this is a blind spot for Bill O Reily to say it doesn’t because he lives it every day. I know about slavery today. I give to organizations fighting it. I have read books and gone to conferences about it. I pray about it regularly and mentor girls so they won’t be apart of it (hard heart wrenching work). I served in missions full time for almost 3 years and do it part time now. I’m aware. I have tons of missionary friends in all the areas you speak of who are fighting the good fight for Christ. I’m not trying to cause any division I’m just trying to say, hey this does exist and to say it doesn’t you must be blind because I see it everyday.

  11. Sara

    I grew up outside of Dallas and know that racism exists in the Big D but I also grew up watching Commissioner John Wiley Price make a fool out of himself and lie to the black community for years yet he still got voted in by his constituents. Last I heard he’ll be visiting your jail soon.

    I also know that Dallas had a good mayor, Ron Kirk, who was also the Secretary of State of Texas. So there are two sides to this coin and both men are judged on their actions not their skin color.

    Please don’t say “I know the world I’ve experience here in America” likes it is the worst place ever. This is America, the best nation in the world when it comes to freedom for people and especially women. I have friends who have lived or are currently living in the slums of India, Middle East and in Muslim controlled areas of Africa and let me say how thankful I am that I’m a woman here and not there.

    Let’s be real here as women: Do you not know that there is more slavery today than there has ever been before? Are you not aware of the horrible growing epidemic of the sex slavery that is devouring young girls today not only abroad but now in America?

    I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist or that you and others shouldn’t address it but I am asking you to look at the bigger picture on a global scale. You are not a slave and I’m betting neither was your mother or grandmother so there is at least 3 generations in your family that has never felt the bitterness of being owned by another person. Thank God for that!

    But there are women today whose daughters, sisters and mothers are sold for less than your daily wage into unspeakable horrors. Where is the outrage for this? The past is the past, it can’t be redone but today we as Christians can be the abolitionists in our day and work to free the thousands of girls and women in bondage today. Think about this and perhaps white privilege won’t seem so bad after all.

  12. Sara

    Let me ask this then: Why when everything went down in Ferguson did I not see on here or other places online of genuine concern for the police officer involved or his family? Why did I only see the word “injustice” and concerns for Mr. Brown?

    Not once did any the writers on here or guest comments give support or prayer to the white officer or his family who had to flee their home over death threats…death threats to small children.

    What if Mr. Brown wasn’t a believer and the officer is? Where do those reformed Christians on this site stand with that? Do they lean toward the black man or their brother in Christ? I really would like an answer to this but of course I don’t expect one because the truth is many blacks put their race before their religion.

    It’s obvious that the African Americans on this site and others view the world solely through their experiences and that’s not a bad thing it’s natural but when I or any other white person does the same then it’s bad. As though my experience is something to be ashamed of or it’s tainted and the black experience is pure and truthful without any hint of racism or sin. That is what is so irritating.

  13. Sara

    You’re right and I’m sick to death of hearing about white privilege. Have any of these people studied about the racism against the Irish in this country? In the 19th century O’Reilly would have been lucky to have found a job with signs saying “Irish Need Not Apply” or dealing with the stereotype that he was nothing but a drunk, fighting Catholic “mick”.

    It’s as though African Americans can’t see past their past and realize that Irish, Polish, Asian, Native American, Arab, Latino, Jew, Catholic, Muslim etc etc have all dealt with some form of racism or ignorant person.

    No offense but I think the African American community has enough problems (I’m talking about the 70% out of wedlock birthrate or black men killed mostly by other black men, or fatherless homes or the way over the top black on white crime stats) to worry about fixing us white folks by helping us get rid of our “white privilege”.

  14. Sara

    What? Wow, so because he’s white then he can’t speak about being white. I’m lost. So when Bill Cosby, Thomas Sowell and Dr. Carson say these things then it’s the truth? Or is it not the truth when O’Reilly says it? The truth doesn’t change whether it’s coming out of the mouth of a white or black man.

  15. Stephen Schaper

    Being white doesn’t mean that O’Reilly can’t make sense of statistics, it means that his authoritative approach is clouded by his experience. The statistics themselves are speculative and won’t get us very far because we can always ask things like, “what are the factors at play resulting in these statistics?” …like single parent homes having a relationship to disproportionate incarceration rates… what causes that? Laws targeted at minorities like, 10 years sentence for first time offenders for crack cocaine of 280 grams (crack used by the poor / minority) whereas 5,000 grams of cocaine (used predominantly by whites / wealthier) gives a 10 year sentence. We could keep asking the “what causes that?” game. I encourage Christians to “enter in” to the experiences of others because this is what God did when he became flesh. Instead of trying to connect dots of facts, why not ask people about their experiences? Hello friend, have you ever been racially profiled? What was that like? Have you felt other? What is it like to buy brown pantihoes instead of ‘nude’ ones? Christians look to self justify, when we are called to only hold on to Christ’s justification for us. We have blind spots. That is what the body is for, if we will allow Christ to do his refining work through the church.

  16. Tyshan Broden

    No I live in Dallas. Im well aware that socioeconomic set up plays a huge role in who comes to jail. I just have my opinions about things. I work hard for everything I have. I come from a family full of single parent homes with kids that have graduated college and have great jobs. Im also well aware of privilege. To each his or her own. I just know the world Ive experienced here in America.

  17. William H Smith

    Are you taking into account all factors, not just skin color, that have an impact on sentencing? Also, do you live in Hinds County/Jackson? If you do, then you know that African Americans are the District Attorney, Sheriff, and Police Chief offices, many of the judgeships. Would be hard to see racial discrimination in Jackson/Hinds County.

  18. Tyshan Broden

    Hey what can I say. I have a different view on life. I work at a jail and man do I see inequality all the time. Most people here deserve to be here but it always baffles me how two people can commit the same crime and get a different sentence.

  19. William H Smith

    I am faced with dilemna of the woman whose husband, when she caught him en flagrante delictowith another woman, asked: “Who ya gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?” Drs. Williams, Sowell, and Steele look black to me. But, since they agree with Bill O’Reilly, it would seem that they must be white and privileged.

  20. William Leonhart

    I’m Texan, too. Born and raised. So I know how diverse it is. I’ve lived in the country, and I’ve lived in mostly black communities. I’ve lived in the city and the suburbs. With the Army, I’ve been to Germany, Italy, France, and Kuwait. I’ve also been to Mexico and Romania (twice). I’ve been in the majority and in the minority, but I’ve never felt it right to hold an “us and them” mentality when talking about fellow believers. We all have attitudes that need admonition and rebuke from time to time. That is best dealt with in community, but I would argue it is hindered when that community is tolerant of “us and them” attitudes.

  21. Tyshan Broden

    I have never really seen that as a goal in the church. Its rare. Even when I did college ministry because of the ignorance I felt pushed more into thinking them and us. It is abominable. It isnt what God desires but it is alive and well. Im from Texas though so I may be a little jaded.

  22. Tyshan Broden

    I think his argument is poor taste because it is very difficult for a man that has never been in the minority to say what privilege is. It is very hard to believe someone’s argument that privilege doesnt exist yet he is reaping all the benefits of privilege. He has a blind spot and it seems everyone can see it but him. Sorry to offend that’s just how I see it. The top of the privilege chain is the white male. In my experience working in missions when people step outside of their own cultural norms that’s when they see all that they had because its gone when they arent the dominant culture.

  23. William Leonhart

    Would you allow a pastor counsel you through the grief of having lost a husband if he hadn’t first lost his wife? Experience is not the arbiter of truth. Do you say the same things about Pastors John Piper and Matt Chandler when they agree with the things said on this site? They are white. What makes them think they can speak with authority? We need to judge people’s arguments on the basis of the argument’s truthfulness, not on the basis of their skin color. I find it insulting to insinuate that his argument is wrong or in poor taste simply because of the color of his skin. Isn’t that what we’re trying to avoid?

  24. William Leonhart

    I’m surprised that it seems no one is picking up on what I see to be a major inconsistency. We call for racial reconciliation without any push for integration. We want to be “one new man” in Christ while allowing for some major dividing walls to remain erected. It was only when I (in Middle School) started to reject the “us and them” / “our team and their team” paradigm and stopped viewing myself primarily in terms of being a “white” guy that I started to see real progress in the way that I related to people of other races and ethnicities. I may not be in a minority race, but I do recognize that I am in the minority in how I approach the sin of racism. I reject racism in total, not allowing even for racial favoritism (in myself or among whites, blacks, or whoever). That is not popular in our society, even in much of evangelicalism. I don’t have the “privilege” of identifying with a race of people, because I disdain such an attitude where it does exist in whites. The problem is that I disdain it when I see it in anyone of any race or ethnicity, but to say so publicly is to invite scorn and ridicule. Or at bare minimum, to say so publicly is to remove oneself from the conversation one is trying to enter. We (Christians, not a particular race) need to recognize that, when we talk about unity in Christ’s body, that is a holistic, indivisible goal. This “us and them” language being used to refer to other Christians is abominable. It ought to be eradicated from our thinking. We may not be post-racial, yet, but since when is that not our goal, at least in God’s church?

  25. Tyshan Broden

    I really dont understand how someone like Bill OReilly can ever say anything about white and privilege. He is a white male. The ultimate of privilege. He really should have thought about it before he opened his mouth. This is foolish to say the least. He is so removed from being a minority. I think he would better understand if he was a different race, ethnic group or gender for a week. Then come back and do the report after a hands on experience expose.

  26. Tyshan Broden

    Are you really surprised??

  27. William H Smith

    O’Reilly can’t win from the beginning. He is white and privileged, therefore he cannot even make sense of the statistics. Being white disqualifies one unless one makes the same argument and comes to the same conclusions as some in the African American community. But O’Reilly makes an argument that is made by some African Americans, for instance Thomas Sowell. How do you explain that? I would guess it is because in some way Sowell benefits from white privilege.

  28. William Leonhart

    White people do currently get turned away from jobs (Affirmative Action?), get called heinous names, and have to fear for their lives in certain communities on account of the color of their skin. Is it disproportionate? Yes, but that gives no one the right to act as though all subcultures aren’t prone to racist attitudes. From what I’m seeing in the media and in the blogosphere, where racism toward whites does exist it is taking on an increasing boldness and acceptance, whereas racism toward blacks is increasingly denounced throughout the U.S. All racist attitudes need to be condemned. I am surprised that more Christians (white, black, or otherwise) aren’t growing more weary of this “my team” / “your team” stuff that’s gaining prominence in evangelicalism.

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