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ATWG Answers: Is Juan Williams a Bigot?

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

Question:
Curious: Had Juan said something to the effect that he’s aware that some people cross the street when they see a group of Black people walking along, I don’t think he would have been fired. In this case, he’s speaking of a stereotype that sadly resonates in 2010.

On the other hand, was Williams simply being honest? Does it make him a bigot instantly for his feelings on being on a plane with Muslims?

Answer:
For those of you who don’t know, Juan Williams was fired from NPR for comments he made on Bill O’Reilly’s show on FOX News. O’Reilly had been under fire for making comments about 9/11 on ABC’s “The View” and Williams tried to help his coworker (Williams is also paid by FOX) by saying, “Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil-rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

He was subsequently fired from NPR, and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller gave her reason—this quote is from an article on NPR’s website: “As a reporter, as a host, as a news analyst, you do not comment on stories.”

Schiller said such restraint was a vital part of NPR’s code of ethics, which states that news staffers cannot say things in other public forums that they could not say on NPR’s airwaves as well. “Certainly you have opinions—all human beings have their personal opinions,” Schiller said. “But it is the ideal of journalism that we strive for objectivity so we can best present the positions of people around all parts of the debate to our public so the public can make their own decisions about these issues.”

I think Vivian Schiller has a real problem: In the eyes of the public, the press has moved on from this concept of “objectivity” in the mainstream press. No human being can be objective, and in the overwhelming majority of content created, “journalism” has only had the veneer of objectivism, not the substance of it. In addition, the line between “news” and “entertainment” is gone in the minds of almost all consumers. Indeed, the majority of NPR’s content isn’t objective. What’s objective about Michel Martin’s show? Or Diane Rehm? I think both women are very fair, but they’re not objective—and I wouldn’t listen to almost every one of their shows if they were (love those podcasts). Further, what’s completely objective about The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal? Not much, but I read both. I even subscribe to the website of the bloated provocateur-propagandist, Rush Limbaugh.

The process of diversity management is to stop “objectifying” people and start viewing them as individuals. I don’t think Juan Williams should have been fired. Perhaps he is a bigot (don’t know him well enough to decide), but what he said is certainly bigoted and ignorant. I think he certainly needs to get to know some of the world’s 1.57 billion Muslim people.

But here’s the thing: NPR knew Williams was a rising star at FOX News—and you go to FOX for what? Enlightened dialogue? Reasonable discourse? Intelligent conversation? Please. Feeding fearful people more stuff to scare them and whipping up xenophobia is their trade. Williams’ comments about Muslims fit right in.

If NPR’s CEO said “Juan Williams has persistent problems, he’s alienating our core audience, he doesn’t reflect our values and we just don’t have a place for him anymore,” she would have been on more solid ground.

Given her comments, I don’t think he should have been fired. Is he a bigot? Time will tell.

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45 Comments

  • Anonymous

    Why did we choose the word bigot? Why not prejudiced or racist? The words we choose are not nearly as important as what circumstances they are trying to convey. Didn’t anyone hear him talk about fear??? He did not say that he thought he was better or more intelligent than Muslims but that when he was on an airplane (one of the most vulnerable places a human being can be in this society) and saw certain passengers in certain ethnic and symbolic garb, he gets worried. This situation is much more about fear than hatred. Juan Williams would probably also admit that he would be equally fearful walking down the street in the evening if he were being followed by a group of young black men.

    This FEAR issue conc;erning those who don’t look like us and of those who the mainstream media tell us are “synonymous” with death and danger is something we have yet to sufficiently explore in this country. In my opnion he made a serious mistake and that is ONLY because he got too comfortable. He started to believe that the folks on FOX news feel any differently about him. There are rules of public discourse in this day and age. If we get no further at least most of us know the sorts of things that should and should not be said in public situations. I think NPR only fired him because Juan Williams, of all people, simply should have known better.

  • Very interesting comments on this article. I didn’t see too very much commentary on other NPR “news reports” that stated blatant bias, hatred, and “personal commentary” while reporting on news events. Anyone remember the NPR reporter who stated she wished a Congressman would develop aids and die; not a lot of objectivity there. Juan Williams has always straddled the fence and supported his commentary while others just spew hatred. While I am not a democrat, I do believe he was fair-minded and only stating is personal thoughts when asked. Tolerance goes both ways, not just slamming Fox News because they don’t agree with your thoughts/beliefs. Diversity also means difference in opinions. Last I checked, eveyone has an opinion; not all are the same. That’s what makes the world go around. The media just needs to listen up and be more objective. Promoting 99% of similiar political views in the media is what killed news reporters. At least many of Fox channel’s personnel are registered Democrats and do their best to be objective; I don’t believe there are any Republicans at CNN, MSNBC. Just my thoughts.

  • Has anyone thought of the possibility that the ocmments were staged to nudge toward a firing and to get media attention? How convenient that Mr. Williams quickly has a $2 million contract with Fox News so quickly thereafter. Those types of contracts ususally take a LOT more time to negotiate.

  • Anonymous

    I have a dream that one day people will stop judging/fearing others based on the clothes they wear and/or their religious beliefs. Imagine how you would feel if you were in their shoes and treat others the way you would want to be treated. There are extremists in many religions but you can’t recognize them by how they dress. Your choices reflect your character. Choose not to be xenophobic about your fellow human beings. It is very freeing to let go of irrational fears of others. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Gandhi

  • It was ten year ago Juan and I were going out for a drink as we walk down the street in D.C. a group of older white ladies saw us and cross the street. Were they bigots or they there feeling scare that two well dress black were the monster that they grew to hate. Are Black men scare of there brothers or is Mr. Wiliiams kissing up to Fox. Mr. Williams in no bigot he was playing up to the Fox Crowd. When will this madness stop or is it a plan to Isolate our Muslim brothers and sisters from America like in Germany. Getting Mr. Williams to speak like this is just another nail in the coffin of the Muslim in American. Wake up American. Or is this the next justified holocaust. Mr. Williams shame on you and Fox.

  • Anonymous

    Juan exposed his prejudice with this statement. We all have these blind spots in our lives (to a greater or lesser degree), but when we go so far as to propogate them into society as Juan did, I believe that goes way past the line of simply proving incapable of being “objective”. Far from the original question, given in another context, Juan’s statement could just have easily been, “But when I walk down the street, I got to tell you, if I see people who are sporting a big afro and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Black, I get worried. I get nervous.” The only difference between the two is that Islamophobia is tolerated in today’s society, while racism isn’t *as* tolerated.

    True, Luke, that complete objectivity is never possible, but that doesn’t mean it should be any less of a goal in journalism. NPR is the last bastion practicing objectivity as a goal and that’s why I’m a donor. They do a good job delineating journalism from opinion. NPR is better for Juan’s dismissal. FN is, well, still every bit Fixed “News”.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve read all of the comments, and I find a lot of this discussion to be naive and unreasonable. One important piece of diversity is recognition of human nature. It’s perfectly natural for human beings to feel fear or discomfort based on previous experiences. It’s how you respond to that momentary discomfort which determines if you’re a bogot or a racist. Juan only said what should be obvious to all of us as a normal human response given the circumstances. The argument that Juan’s comments are racist towards Muslims based on the comparative insertion of African Americans, Latinos, East Indians, etc to the same situation is ridiculous. Why? Because Juan’s fear is not based on ethnicity. It’s based on the fact that 100% of commercial airline hijackings used to attack the US have been carried out by Islamic radicals. Note that he refers to individuals who identify themselves primarily as Muslims – not Arabic people. It’s similar to saying “I feel nervous when someone who identifies themselves primarily as a gangster walks into my convenience store.” To deny these realities in life is to be willfully ignorant. The fact is that if a store is robbed, it was probably robbed by someone who identifies with gangster culture. Likewise, in our current geopolitical environment, if a commercial airline is hijacked, it was probably hijacked by a radical fundamentalist follower of Islam (i.e. Muslim). Juan’s point is that none of us is enlightened by attempting to deny the realities of the world. He didn’t mean to imply that someone dressed in traditional Muslim garb is an actual threat – he was just pointing out the natural discomfort that any normal person would feel when placed in that situation with someone who identifies themselves primarily as a follower of Islam. Anyone who can’t admit that this kind of thought would cross their mind in the same situation is either kidding themselves or lying.

  • There seems to be a belief that being prejudice is somehow being a liar. Do people honestly hold prejudiced views, and speak them truthfully? Absolutely! To hold prejudices is not, in itself, wrong. To hold them and believe that they are the right thing to do, usually is. The 60′s Southern White Man honestly believed, overall, that black were inferior, and said so truthfully

    To defend a prejudiced position is always wrong. To not recognize that the prejudiced position is based on virtually no evident is ignorant. So this brings us to Juan, is he a bigot?

    Perhaps but that is more his problem to deal with. Our problem is who should we, the public, deal with it? Should we violate free market principles and claim that an employer has no right to terminate an employee? Should we violate free speech rights and demand that Juan be forever silent? Should we sucumb to the Far Right’s dream and fully defund NPR?

    No, what we should do is recognize NPR’s right of control of their employees, bask in the light of Juan’s discourse, assuming one can find any, and accept the fact that the Far Right doesn’t want a nearly honest news outlet to exist.

  • Really? As a member of a corporate diversity team, I have been reading your magazine for years through my corporate subscription. You claim to be all about diversity, yet when I am inspired to join the conversation, you reject a simple difference of opinion. What about my comment was offensive to you? Was I profain? Racist? Hateful? No, I simply have a different viewpoint which I expressed thoughtfully and respectfully.

    Luke, I would expect you (as CEO of a publication dedicated to Diversity) to understand that diversity cannot flourish in an environment where only one mindset is acceptable. I suppose you support diversity in all areas except thought. As a diversity advocate myself, I’m very disappointed to receive this email from you. Your attitude is very indicative of your unfortunate failure to live up to the values you advocate and I’m sorry to say that we will be cancelling our subscription to the magazine. Furthermore, in the interest of true diversity, I will be sending this correspondance to several blogs and magazines to ensure that your lack of tolerance is visible to others.

    Best Regards,
    Darius Johnson

  • Luke, there is no point in continuing this discussion with someone who is blinded by idealogy. However, I want to correct you on a couple of issues: 1) Muslims are NOT an ethnic group. 2) My reference to gangster culture was not meant to be a connection to Islam – it was meant to show how silly it is that some of the commenters to this story mention racial prejudice and discrimination to show that Juan’s comments are bigoted. My point is that they are completely different and this issue is about religion and culture; not race. 3) The fact that the 9/11 hijackers did not dress in traditional garb is well taken. It supports my assertion that Juan was not trying to insinuate that a person dressed a certain way is a threat – only that it’s normal for people to have an emotional reaction when they see it. My final point is that I am not claiming to be an expert – just a person with a point of view on this topic that you attempted to censor. Best, Darius

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know whether or not Mr. Williams is a bigot, but he clearly is afraid. The remedy for fear is to run to the roar. I find it astonishing that a journalist who has risen in the ranks of the media industry as he has, is so ill-informed about one the major world religions that millions of Americans ascribe to. I want to challenge Mr. Williams to run to the roar by educating himself about the Muslim faith. I wish someone would tell us what a terrorist looks like. Perhaps if we figure that out, we can stop illegitimately targeting people of a particular race, religion or culture.

  • Anonymous

    The question asked in this article is whether or not Juan is a bigot. I understand Luke’s point and agree that the statement reflects Juan’s ignorance of Islam and Muslims. In his defense, Juan may have been wrong, inaccurate, ignorant and afraid but respectfully disagree that he is intolerant, aka, a bigot. The central theme of his comment was about his fear. The stated goal of the terrorists (not Islam or Muslims) is to create fear, to defeat us, and destroy our way of life. Unfortunately Juan’s statement is evidence that they are having some success. When we are afraid, they are winning.

  • Anonymous

    The ambiguity of the American people never ceases to amaze me. Whatever happened to “one man’s rights end where the next man’s rights begin? Juan William has every right to voice his opinions/fears as longs as he does not attempt to interfere with the Muslims rights to religious expression on public transportation. But on the other hand, I have a 16 year old child who makes straights “A’s” in school, has perfect attendance, and exhibits immaculate behavior wherever she goes. And the friends that she chooses all do the same. Yet, after a long week in school (studying hard), she cannot enjoy a Saturday afternoon with her friends at the mall of their choice. Most malls in my city have parental escort policies in place which prohibit them from going to the malls.without an adult. They are treated like castaways in the few malls that don’t have these policies(followed around by mall security, store personnel, etc.) . It is the popular opinion that it’s ok for these malls to have such policies or to treat teenagers this way based upon the bad experiences that they have had with delinquent minors. So, my child and her friends are labeled delinquents and treated unfairly because of the actions of other youth to whom they have no association, nothing in common; except the misfortunate of being the same age. Why isn’t someone demanding the firing of the executives and apologies from the owners of these malls? But, that’s right… it’s okay for them to have these policies based upon the fears of the customers and the past experiences of mall security…..Think about it!!!

  • Anonymous

    Given her comments ALONE – Juan Williams shouldn’t have been fired. Given your comments “what he said is certainly bigoted and ignorant. I think he certainly needs to get to know some of the world’s 1.57 billion Muslim people.” – it would appear that he should. As a TRUE journalist, he is looked to for information and facts, this statement made on the public airwaves, just absolved him of his journalistic duties. He is a perfect fit for Fox News where facts and information don’t have a place.

  • Anonymous

    As a WASP male who grew up in the South of the 1940-50′s, I find myself a “recovering” racist, homophobe, and xenophobe. It is impossible to be raised in a racist, xenophobic, homophobic culture without it being a lifelong struggle to overcome. I recognize my prejudices for the most part but still have visceral reactions when surrounded by black faces or gay friends or in the company of those who dress in Muslim garb while traveling. Juan is only honest enough to tell the inevitable truth. He is among the fairest and least “bigoted” commentators, and I deeply admire him. I consider myself a political moderate and Juan a few degrees to the liberal side from me.

  • Anonymous

    And one more thing, people need to stop constructing this as if bigotry is the opposite of honesty. One can be an honest bigot. Just because Williams shared what he purports are his “honest” feelings, does not exclude them for being bigoted.

  • Anonymous

    Honestly, the man was being paid by NPR to be an appropriate host on their program. When he is a guest on another program, and maybe after a couple of glasses of wine, the inhibitions come off. I believe in NPR’s decision, and this just proves that we can’t change our hardwiring just because we are told to. This is not a simple act of bigotry, it is a deep-seated culture of many people. He should have indicated that his opinions and experiences are not that of NPR, and maybe he still would have been fired. NPR has to remain squeaky clean. This was not a case taken out of context as we have seen before, specifically in political cases. This was the truth spoken by a man of color, and could have been said by anyone of us. Unfortunately for Mr. Williams, his personal opinion was not shared by his “at will” employer, and maybe next time he will share his opinion without the representation of his emplopyer. My employer would have fired me too, tenure or no tenure.

  • Luke, you keep saying that you don’t know Juan so you can’t judge him to be bigoted, but you sure label Fox News and their viewers. People are human and have fear and stereotypes. That’s how humans work. There are too many examples in the Muslim communities and countries on how they treat women, gays, non-Muslims. Of course not all and not most I know, but come on. If a group of mostly whites got together, your and your readers comments on this website label them as racist with out knowing them.

  • I wasn’t trying to compare Fox to Muslim and whites. It was an example of how experiences from all sources form opinions. For the fake address, it was a typo. Maybe your tech team can add a validation check.

  • Anonymous

    Juan Williams is now out of the closet. He was probably always a bigot. No question about it. If you or I were on Bill O’s show telling him that we feel get nervous around black people, then we would be bigots.

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