After the 2016 election, Bill O’Reilly argued on the O’Reilly Factor that changes to the Electoral College—an issue of heated debate, at the time—would amount to “power taken away from the white establishment” and a “profound change in the way America is run.”
O’Reilly’s rant was essentially a love letter to whiteness. It comes from the same place as Dave Chappelle’s famous SNL skit, in which he gets his first tax bill as a rich person and exclaims: “Ah [man]! I just got this money!”
O’Reilly might as well have said, “Ah, man! I just got this whiteness!”
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I. O’Reilly Suffers From “New White Syndrome”
It is said in religion that there’s no zealot like a convert. O’Reilly’s people (the Irish) are converts to whiteness, and a zealot O’Reilly has become. The result is Newly-White Syndrome, a close cousin of Chappelle’s New Money Syndrome. O’Reilly’s overdone chest-thumping about his whiteness reflects the need to hear it aloud—convincing himself as much as us.
O’Reilly surely resents that the English long-regarded the Irish as inferior. He may know that Ralph Waldo Emerson grouped his people with Africans, Indians, and East Asian people—whom he referred to simply as “Chinese”—as individuals who would never “occupy a high place in the human family,” as only the “Caucasian race” could. And he might be aware that Thomas Carlyle opined that the Irish “seem quite unfit for self [-] government.”
This is O’Reilly’s family history. The only glimmer of hope was offered by the head of the American Eugenics Society in 1911: if the Irishman “cleans himself up—very well, we might receive him in a generation or two.”
II. In Search of Whiteness
Bill would’ve had an easier time becoming white in Latin America, where you could literally buy whiteness—a “gracias al sacar.” It was “a royal exemption that provided the privileges of Whiteness.” But in the United States, the English wouldn’t let you buy whiteness. Not outright.
So the Irish intermarried.
Thomas Jefferson thought it took four generations of intermarriage to eliminate inferior blood. By that estimation, many of the Irish who came here in the mid-1800s potato famine were still pushing out mixed breeds when O’Reilly was born in 1949. And O’Reilly – Irish dad, Welsh mom – would be generations from meeting Jefferson’s purity standard.
Therefore, immigrants started changing the things that were within their power—like their names. Allen Konigsberg became Woody Allen. Ralph Lifshitz emerged Ralph Lauren. The Irish and Welsh anglicized with common name changes, like:
Ó Gallchobhair→ Gallagher
Uigínn → Higgins
ap Hywell → Powell
ap Siôn → Jones
Ó Raghallaigh → O’Reilly
Immigrants also jettisoned accents and engaged in what economists call “signaling” to prove their respectability. Wearing “Oxfords, not brogues” is signaling, as is driving a certain kind of car and adopting “WASP sensibilities.” And one of the most important forms of signaling was to play one’s part in the racial hierarchy.
III. Becoming White at the Expense of Black
America is a deeply classed society that is pretending not to be.
It’s easy to see why, with all that loose talk about how “all men are created equal” in our founding documents. But John Adams’ belief that there is always a group of people “who is the last and lowest of the human species” was left out of the Declaration of Independence. The founders also neglected Ben Franklin’s question about who would choose to be “Slaves to those above them, provided they might exercise an arbitrary and tyrannical rule over all below them?”
The founders had their own ideas about who was at the top, middle, and bottom of these hierarchies. Jefferson divided the country into three classes: “Aristocrats, half breeds, pretenders (or, “pseudo-Aristocrats”) at the top; then the “yeomanry, looking askance at those above, yet not ventured to jostle them for the position.” Lowest are “Overseers, the most abject, degraded, and unprincipled race.”
Franklin, likewise, saw three classes: the “better sort” on top, the “middling people,” and the “meaner sort” on the bottom. He maintained that the middle wouldn’t jostle the top because the masses prefer a “happy mediocrity.”
A group above, a group below, and one in the middle—carrying out the will of the top upon the people below them, in hopes of gaining access to that elusive elite tier.
IV. Misjudging One’s Interests
This ends tragically for everyone except those at the top. For example, in 1974 Boston, a judge ventured that black students were equal to white ones. But black schools were not equal to white ones, which meant they needed to integrate. Rather than send their kids to school with black children, mostly white and poor South Boston set the city on fire.
Meanwhile, wealthy whites stayed clear of the entire fray. They fled to the suburbs, and took their children from the schools and their capital from the city. This left behind a poorer city, with a diminished property tax base to fund the schools, and trapped both poor white and black children in failing schools. By placing their racial interest over their class interest, the white poor misfired, and made their own lives worse off.
The result, Jonathan Kozol observes, is that “poor whites, poor blacks and poor Hispanics now become illiterate together.” Boston’s Busing War proved that trying to become white at the expense of blacks doesn’t work for the reason Frederick Douglass diagnosed more than a century before: Neither rise. It only ends up “prov[ing] that if we cannot rise to the whites, the whites can fall to us.”
V. Until We’re All Free
Once, while defending the Electoral College, O’Reilly told John McCain that the Left “wants to break down the white, Christian, male power structure of which you are a part, and so am I.” Yet for most of U.S. history, McCain’s Protestants vigorously disagreed that O’Reilly’s Catholics are Christians, at all.
Moreover, clinging to that whiteness membership card the way O’Reilly does only shows he doesn’t have a firm grip on it. After all, ‘I’m the white establishment’ is something no actual member would ever say.
Color-struck, yet systems-blind, O’Reilly cannot see that he is playing the indispensable middle management role described by Jefferson, Franklin and others, without which the racial system would fall apart. He is another “flunkey…to [the] gentry” (Frederick Douglass’s term).
This is why O’Reilly should be the object of our pity, not our scorn. Made to enter whiteness through the side door, O’Reilly’s sad response is to be grateful for the privilege. O’Reilly has not yet learned that whiteness can be a fickle lover. By the time Martin Niemöller got to write those chilling words, “First they came for the…” but “I was not a…” it was too late. The Nazis had already thrown him in Dachau. This is why Fannie Lou Hammer told a white audience in 1971, “Your freedom is shackled in chains to mine. And until I am free, you are not free either.”
Freedom comes only when we reject these assigned social categories, including race.
“When the Irish leave whiteness, there goes the neighborhood,” activist Tom Hayden notes. The Irish should leave whiteness. The existence of any racial establishment in America can never be in the interest of anyone whose last name has an apostrophe in it.
Race is something we have, not something we are. Since it was constructed, it follows that it can be deconstructed. And it should be. It brings as many burdens as benefits, even for white Americans. It would be tragic if O’Reilly never learns this. Still more tragic if America doesn’t.