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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

  • Juan Williams is not a bigot nor is he a racists. He is however naive if he bellieves he can express hing honest feelings given his position with two of the new works. His comments could not have come at a worst time given the anger unleashed upon the Muslim communities throughout the U.S.A. On the otherhand his comments have opened up an opportunity fir him to have dialogue/focus groups to talk openly an honest about this issue and a lot of other issues regarding race, ethnicities and gender.

  • Wow. Can everyone take a chill pill here and have some honest dialog without slinging the slime all over the place. Humans have many types of fears built in and that is why we survive by choosing fight or flight. And if anyone tells me they never stereotype, i know they are being less then truthful.

    Also, don’t forget, those of us who live in the United States of America, are free to express ourselves through speech and trying to silence those with differing views does nothing more than breed hate that leads to a “I’ll punch you in your face” discourse, which benefits no one.

    And as a note of interest, I listen to NPR, Fox, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, CNN and others to get both sides of the story, and frankly, I am rarely swayed by any of them, as I have learned a long time ago to investigate and decide on my own.

  • Anonymous

    Hello Luke and Readers. I read DiversityInc on a regular (several times a week). I often find the articles engaging, as I do your commentary on current diversity happenings around the US and globe. As a Native American (Osage) gay guy, I am deeply fascinated by this line of discussion, particularly because I also teach multicultural education. I don’t find Juan William’s comments troubling because I see it as an honest reflection of his feelings, which were describing a momentary and visceral reaction he would have while getting on a plane if he were to experience people he perceived to be Muslim. I agree with some of the other writers here who suggested that his feelings weren’t matched up with a behavior: he wasn’t suggesting that Muslims be required to undergo additional security checks or be denied access to the plane or even that he would treat them differently if he were to interact with them (we don’t know how he would respond to them in person). In my view, real diversity is about an open dialogue. One of the things I tell my students is that they can express *any* idea in class as long as it does not devolve into a personal attack (your exchange with Darius seems to be personally attacking — suggesting his comments are foolish and that he has a serious problem since he doesn’t agree with you — seems to be lacking in civility). I create a safe place in my classroom so students can be open about their prejudice…and then we can begin to deconstruct them. Helping people become more accepting doesn’t happen when we silence them.

    It is a good goal to examine one’s prejudices…so how do we do that in a public forum if we are told that we cannot express them? (I agree that FOX news is very closed minded, but so is NPR) I see William’s comments as a wonderful opportunity to explore a diversity of feelings and thoughts about difference. We all have prejudices, Luke…even you (and me too).
    Thanks for reading my comments. Warmly, Matt.

  • Anonymous

    JMO: He WAS being honest and he WAS being a BIGOT…identifies the work that we ALL have to be doing, and the behaviors that we all have to be alert to! In his position – playing two sides of the fence for $$$ he was deserving of the severed relationship with NPR. My friend calls that talking out of both sides of your neck! :) You get what you ask for. And Juan, DO NOT fall back on the “I am black so I’m not a racist” game. We’re all racist/biased to an extent: the glory lies in introspection and THINKING before we act and before we speak. No matter how much money we’ll be making! Suck it up, pal, and own it.

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Williams is a troubled man. I think his fears of persons on a plane wearing Moslem garb, as he phrased it, reflects his confusion about terrorism and Islam. During the Civil Rights era that he wrote about and which I lived through. There was no way of identifying the terrorists who were blowing up churches, butchering human rights workers, setting attack dogs on women and children, burning crosses or shooting at us with high-powered rifles, handguns and whatever was available. Anyone with a skin was dressed in the garb of terror. We learned who our enemies were and more importantly who our freinds were by what they did in support of justice.

    Mr. Williams and I met in the doorway of a suburban Maryland supermarket of couple of years back. I greeted him and said something positive about his journalism. The look on his face was one of abject fear. To this day I don’t know why given that we were both African American, casually dressed in shirts and slacks (no Moslem garb, thank you) and the excahnge, such as it was, was civil. This goes deeper this what appears to be his pandering to the right or disdain of the left. Brother Juan, please seek professional help. More media exposure is not the answer to what is troubling you.

    with compassion,

    Khalid Moussa Foster.
    M.Div. student

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