Bill O’Reilly’s Defense of the White Establishment Shows How Flimsy It Is

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!”

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.


First Person

Your Representatives Are Home This Week. Make Them Listen to You.

A month into the Trump administration, we can see the outline of Trump’s vision for America: An attorney general who prosecuted voting rights activists; a secretary of education devoted to dismantling our public education system; and a head of the Environmental Protection Agency who wants to dismantle environmental protections.

Between the emerging administration, and a Congress that is hell-bent on taking our country backwards—not just to before Obama, but to before Roosevelt’s New Deal—there is a clear need for citizen vigilance and activism. And Americans are meeting the moment: They’re flocking to marches, airports, and town halls; donating record amounts of money; and subscribing to responsible journalistic outlets that hold the government accountable.

Americans are showing up in record numbers, but it doesn’t actually take that many people to move the government. The Tea Party proved this in 2009, when a small segment of the electorate organized to thwart President Obama. It rallied its members against a president who had decisively won both the popular vote and the Electoral College, and whose party held majorities in both Congressional chambers—a president who did, in fact, enjoy a sweeping popular mandate for his campaign promises.  Yet by focusing their energy with laser-like precision on a local, defensive strategy, the Tea Party became a force in American politics.

What the Tea Party did was a Civics 101 lesson on constituent power: They engaged with their members of Congress, and reminded them that they have opinions—and that they vote. And they did it week after week after week.

Now we’re in the beginnings of a new movement, and we can use a similar playbook.

It worked here in Roanoke when our Congressman, Republican Bob Goodlatte, proposed legislation to gut the congressional ethics office. Constituents flooded the office with so many calls that his staff seemed dazed when they picked up the phone. Then, when the phone lines were continuously busy, 12 of us decided we were concerned enough to visit his district office in person.

We knew that it was our Representative’s staff’s job to listen to our concerns and report them to Mr. Goodlatte.  But Congressional offices will also try to control the public narrative, and even silence constituents.  We have now visited Mr. Goodlatte’s district office three times, and we were denied entry each time.

We have learned to improvise.

On our first visit we were forced to meet with his staff in a lobby on a different floor, where we delivered New Year’s cards with our messages (one of which read “Happy New Year!  We expect better!”). On our second visit we were told the same lobby was private property and no longer available for constituent meetings, so we asked his staff to meet with us outside.  There, a group of teachers and medical and insurance professionals urged Mr. Goodlatte to vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) unless he had a health care proposal to replace it.  By our third visit a week later, building security physically blocked the lobby door to keep us outside. Once again, we called Mr. Goodlatte’s staff to meet us in the winter cold so we could deliver 80 letters from constituents asking Goodlatte to vote against a federal “personhood” bill that would criminalize abortion, in vitro fertilization, and some forms of birth control.

Like the woman from Utah who sent a message to her senator via pizza delivery when his voice mail was full, we have learned to improvise and be creative.  We’ll do whatever it takes to make sure our members of Congress hear our voices.

The first weeks of the Trump administration have shown that we can win some fights if we stand together. Congressional Republicans retreated from Goodlatte’s anti-ethics legislation, and the calls and visits demanding a replacement for the ACA before a reckless repeal throws millions of people off their health insurance have forced some Republicans to admit privately that they need to slow down and govern.

Civics 101 is working again.

Right now, we have the chance to do even more. This week, members of Congress are in their home states and districts. It is their job to listen to us, so find a local group and make sure that they do. We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines.

This is our republic, entrusted to each and every citizen.  Every call and every visit to our representatives is another beat of the heart of our democracy.  Our system only works when we make sure our representatives are not legislating for themselves or their lobbyists, but for those who gave them the power to govern in the first place: The American people.


First Person

Dear Senator Toomey: The Cuts You Vote for Make It Impossible to Feed My Family

Editor’s Note: These are modified remarks from a “Tuesdays with Toomey” event on February 7, 2017.

Dear Senator Toomey,

You don’t know me. You have never met me, or answered any of my calls. But you have power and influence over my life—and my children’s well-being—and that scares me.

So Senator Toomey, let me introduce myself:  My name is Myra Young. I’m a mother, an advocate, and I live in poverty.

I work hard to take care of my family. For the last 22 years I worked as a certified nursing assistant, but I still lived in poverty and needed government assistance to put food on the table and to keep my kids healthy. Two months ago, the company I worked for closed and I was laid off. Now without my job, my struggle is even more difficult.  I only receive $33 a month in food stamps—barely enough to get my family through one healthy meal. My kids need fruit and vegetables, but I simply cannot afford them.

Last week, my 10-year-old son asked, “Mom, why do you cry so much?”

I told him, “Because I want to take care of you and your sister, but it’s so hard.”

But why is it so hard, Senator?

It’s hard because wages are too low.
It’s hard because we have to beg for scraps when we need help.
And it’s hard because of politicians like you, Senator Toomey.

You have everything I want: a safe home to go to, a job that pays a good wage, and a family in good health.  But you want to take away the little bit I have by cutting programs that help me—and people like me—feed my family.  That hurts us.  That keeps us down. And that makes me angry.

You are wrong, Senator Toomey.
You are wrong if you don’t protect these programs.
You are wrong if you don’t care about my family.

Would you be able to survive one week in my shoes?

Would you be able to survive one week in my shoes?  Would you be able to manage the daily struggle of trying to feed your family? Manage the stress of not knowing if you will be able to pay rent for the month? Manage the fear that your child may need health care that you cannot afford?

If I were in your shoes, and had the power to help a mother with two disabled children, I would do it.  I would make sure she has the services she needs to care for her family.  I would take care of the more than 1.6 million people in Pennsylvania who live paycheck to paycheck.

Senator Toomey, as a member of Witnesses to Hunger, my sisters and I will continue to speak out and fight for the needs of our children, families, and communities.

It’s your responsibility to do the same.



Trump’s Labor Department Nominee Should Just Drop Out Already

President Trump’s pick for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, should finally have a confirmation hearing this Thursday—after four separate delays.  His nomination process has been fraught since it was announced two months ago: The media has surfaced allegations ranging from past mob ties, to disputed allegations of domestic assault, to illegally avoiding taxes by paying a housekeeper under the table. The parade of scandals has caused some Senate Republicans to question whether the mega-rich CEO of CKE Restaurants, the corporation that operates Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., is qualified to lead the Labor Department.

These allegations may be what ultimately derail Puzder’s path to confirmation, but it’s actually his virulently anti-worker behavior that should disqualify him from being the nation’s top advocate for working people.

Despite Trump’s often-repeated campaign promise to stand up for working Americans, his nominee is a longtime advocate for gutting worker protection laws and silencing workers’ voices on the job. While this may be good news for CEOs in fast food and other low-wage industries, it’s bad news for the people Trump has sworn to protect.

Even though Americans’ wages have been stagnant for years, Puzder opposes government policies that would increase wages and improve job quality. He opposed the recent rule that would expand overtime so that it would reach 4.2 million more workers, he has scoffed at the idea that workers may need to take rest breaks over the course of their shift,  and he has argued that “some jobs don’t produce enough economic value” to justify raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.

Carl’s Jr. practices in other countries undermine Puzder’s argument that the market couldn’t bear a higher wage.  At its 20 locations in New Zealand, the chain must pay at least the federal minimum wage of $15.25 per hour (or $11.07 in American dollars). The chain is also planning to open up 300 stores in Australia, where the law requires that adult fast food workers be paid at least $19.44 per hour (nearly $15 in American dollars) with hourly pay premiums for overtime and night shift work.

But here in the U.S., Puzder’s company may have failed to even comply with the existing federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.  In a 2014 investigation of a corporate-owned Hardee’s in Alabama, government investigators alleged that workers were being paid less than the federal minimum wage because CKE was paying workers with fee-laden prepaid debit cards. And just last week, two Carl’s Jr. employees filed suit against CKE and its franchises, claiming that the companies use “no-hire agreements” that prevent managers from moving to new jobs with higher pay. The company released a statement saying it will not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.

Workers have filed dozens of other complaints against Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. stores for wage theft, overtime violations, sexual harassment, and unfair labor practices. A spokesperson for CKE restaurants said the company will not comment on the pending litigation, but argued—despite a recent report to the contrary—that the franchise restaurant owners are “solely responsible for their employees, management, and adherence to regulations and labor practices.”

He prefers workers who do not—or cannot—advocate for better conditions.

In addition to opposing a living wage and basic worker protections, Puzder has made it clear that he prefers workers who do not—or cannot—advocate for better conditions. As an employer, he has reasoned that immigrant workers make better employees since they have what he refers to as a “‘Thank God I have this job’ kind of attitude,” which presumably translates to a hesitance to speak up when there are problems. He also looks forward to one day operating completely automated employee-free restaurants since machines are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

These individual anti-worker beliefs and practices culminate in Puzder’s desire to silence the voice and power of working Americans by dismantling unions. He is a vocal critic of the Fight for $15, and he opposes reforms that would hold franchisors accountable for discrimination against workers who participate in protests and strikes. At least one former Hardee’s franchise employee alleges that she was fired for her involvement in protests to demand higher wages and a union.

Puzder’s disdain for unions extends beyond the fast food industry where he has a clear self-interest. When Walmart announced last year that it would close 154 stores (the vast majority of which were smaller stores) in an effort to focus on supercenters and e-commerce, he ignored Walmart’s own statement and blamed workers for the closures. With no evidence to back up his claim, Puzder penned an op-ed faulting a worker group for the closures.

This sort of right-wing opposition to unions and workers’ collective voice isn’t new—but with a Republican-controlled White House and Congress the stakes are higher. The government will likely debate legislative proposals and administrative changes that could cripple unions by cutting their funding and membership.

If Puzder continues to take aggressively anti-union positions as labor secretary, it will not just be bad for union members. Unions help raise wages, reduce inequality, and boost economic mobility for all workers—whether or not they’re in a union. And without organized labor, working people lose negotiating power in the workplace and in government—whether it’s their ability to negotiate for higher wages or to defend policies like Social Security and Medicaid that protect the middle class.

So much for Trump’s promise to protect and fight for American workers.



Congress Wants to Make it Possible to Drug Test Anyone Who Applies for Unemployment

Tomorrow, the House of Representatives is expected to vote to roll back a Department of Labor regulation that protects people who apply for Unemployment Insurance (UI) from unnecessary drug testing. It’s a not-so-subtle attack on the character of unemployed Americans, rooted in stereotypes that blame workers for job loss.

Congress has already agreed to allow states to test UI claimants in two specific, narrow circumstances: if a worker was fired from their previous job because of drug use, or if the worker is looking for a new job in a field that regularly drugs tests employees.  But since the Great Recession, some states have been clamoring to expand drug testing for UI applicants—they believe that they’d be able to shrink the program as workers test positive for drugs, or that workers would decline to apply for benefits because of their drug use. Despite the complete absence of data to support this theory, three states—Texas, Mississippi, and Wisconsin—have enacted laws that permit the drug testing of UI recipients (though they have all held implementation until the Labor Department rule was finalized).

Lawmakers aren’t just hoping to roll back the Labor Department rule. They’re also counting on passage of a bill introduced in the 114th Congress by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) that would effectively allow states to drug test all jobless workers filing for unemployment insurance.

Here are five reasons that shouldn’t be allowed:

1. It’s unconstitutional

Drug tests have historically been considered searches for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment. For searches to be reasonable, they must be based on “individualized suspicion.” That means the government would need to have a specific reason to believe that each person they drug tested was doing drugs. Otherwise, it’s like conducting a search without a warrant.

The only exception to this rule has been if the government can show there is a special need, such as public safety, that warrants it.But governmental programs like Unemployment Insurance, TANF, SNAP, and housing assistance do not naturally evoke the special needs exceptions that the Supreme Court has recognized in the past.

2. It’s redundant

Twenty states already explicitly deny people UI benefits if they lost their job because of drug use or a failed drug test. In addition, virtually all states treat a drug-related discharge as disqualifying misconduct even if it is not explicitly referenced in their discharge statutes. Adding an additional regulation when state regulations are already accomplishing this task would add to the bureaucracy that this administration has vowed to reduce.

3. It’s expensive

Creating a new qualifying requirement for UI would be very expensive, and federal law prohibits states from making potential beneficiaries pay for drug tests. States would have to absorb the cost of drug testing thousands of unemployed workers, and UI programs are already too under-funded and under-staffed. Though there are no comprehensive estimates of how much this would cost, when Texas was considering drug testing UI applicants a few years ago, it was estimated to cost $30 million per year.  In FY 2012, federal funding fell short of covering states’ administrative expenses by an estimated $231 million.

4. Workers have already paid for access to the program

Unemployment Insurance is funded through payroll taxes. Workers earn that benefit over the course of their career—and they don’t have access to it unless they lose their job and are working to find a new one.

5. It’s based on negative stereotypes, not data

This attempt to violate the privacy of every American who is unlucky enough to lose a job is rooted in a blanket assumption that the ranks of the unemployed are crowded with lazy drug abusers. However, there is no evidence to support this claim. When states have attempted similar drug-testing initiatives in the past, only a small fraction of recipients—less than one half of one percent—actually tested positive (and finding that small group of people cost hundreds of thousands of dollars).

Realistically, two-thirds of Americans will struggle with unemployment at some point during their careers. Imposing an expensive, ineffective, and unconstitutional new obstacle to a program that most of us will need doesn’t actually solve anything.