By Mark Naison
Now that Bill O’Reilly is off the air, I think it is time I provide an account of my appearance on The O’Reilly Factor, since the tape of the episode I appeared on is nowhere to be found. Ten years ago, I received a call inviting me to appear on The O’Reilly Factor to discuss a controversy in a town in Ohio surrounding the selection of a White teacher to teach a Black History course when the one Black teacher in the school retired. I assumed that I was called because my recently published book, White Boy: A Memoir, described how I ended up as a professor in Fordham’s Black Studies Department.
I had some experience in doing media appearances on this topic thanks to my wonderful publicity agent Marlah Bonner McDuffie, including a recent appearance on The Chappelle Show, which brought me some “street cred.” I accepted, ignoring Mr. O’Reilly’s reputation for eviscerating liberal guests.
When I got to the studio, I quickly concluded that this experience was going to be more challenging than my other media appearances, including those on Fox Business where I was interviewed on Judge Napolitano’s show.
In all my previous television experiences, someone escorted me to the green room by a friendly person and offered snacks while I waited to make my on-air appearance. Not this time. A grim- faced woman led me to a small room without food and water with a big television on the wall. As I sat there, I watched Bill O’Reilly tear apart the head of the Republican National Committee, someone far closer to his point of view than I. I quickly realized that Mr. O’Reilly looked upon me, a liberal or left-wing professor, as “fresh meat.” I decide not to play along.
My strategy: Be polite and respectful, but change the narrative that he would try to establish with points on my own. Before that, I would win his respect through time-honored techniques honed in the masculinist working-class ethos of my upbringing. From the outset, Mr. O’Reilly needed to know that even though I was a liberal professor, I was not someone he could push around. In fact, if it actually came to a fight, I could kick his ass.
It began with the handshake. Striding into the studio with a big smile on my face, I assumed my most intimidating posture, looked him straight in the eye, and shook his hand with what he must have thought surprising firmness. (I keep tennis balls cut in half on my office desk that I squeeze regularly to strengthen my forearms.) Then I sat down.
When the discussion started, it became clear that O’Reilly wanted to portray what he called “Black Racism,” as evidenced by the Black parents and students who protested a White teacher taking over their school’s Black History course. He sought to portray this as a bigger problem than White Racism.
In an attempt to change the narrative, I said that the Ohio parents’ concerns were reasonable given how US History had been written and taught. They should be skeptical of a White person teaching African-American History. The context was important. When I was hired to teach courses on Black History at Fordham, there were six Black professors teaching full time and part time, offering the students a wide-range of learning opportunities—a very different situation from a school with only one Black History course taught by only one teacher.
While I agreed with O’Reilly that there should be no hard-and-fast rule about who can teach a particular subject based on his/her background, I vehemently disagreed with his suggestion that the Black parents and students in that Ohio school were “racist.”
After sparring about the Ohio situation, I seized the podium by saying, “Look, reasonable people may disagree about the Ohio controversy, but one thing we can’t lose sight of is that White Racism remains a HUGE problem in American society something that CANNOT be compared to whatever alleged discrimination whites experience at the hands of Blacks.”
Before he could catch a breath, I stated “Look, Bill. I am not some ivory tower professor. I spent twenty years coaching CYO basketball and sandlot baseball in Brooklyn. Just last week, my friend Gary Nielsen, an NYC firefighter, took his younger son and one of his friends, who happened to be Black, to his summer home in Breezy Point, an enclave filled with mostly Irish cops and firemen. When his son and his friend went to get a snack at a local take-out spot, a woman came up to them, and screamed at his Black friend, “Get out of here, you don’t belong here,” and kicked him! Black people face this kind of treatment every day. To compare the suspicion a White teacher experienced when trying to teach a Black History course with that kind of behavior doesn’t reflect the lived realities of Blacks and Whites in this country.”
Mr. O’Reilly never expected this, and he ended up being at a loss for words. And just as I finished my remarks, I was told time was up!
As the show ended, I shook Mr. O’Reilly’s hand and said “I really enjoyed this, I hope I will be invited back to continue his conversation.”
I never was.
Now that Bill O’Reilly is off the air, I guess I never will be.