Clearly, Bill O’Reilly is no Alex Haley. The former Fox News host went to Ireland recently to connect with his roots. But, while in the Emerald Isle, instead of writing a bestseller, he tweeted some of his worst instincts.
First, I have to give the Irish-American broadcaster his props. I appeared on O’Reilly’s cable show for about 10 years, and he has been my guest when I’ve hosted radio shows. He has called me a friend, and I do the same. He was the king of cable news for a reason. He has the ability to simplify the complicated, explain a confusing world and relate to everyday Americans.
But what O’Reilly doesn’t have is a good grasp of American history and a mature perspective on white privilege.
He tweeted: “Enjoying my time in Ireland. Visited County Cavan where my ancestors were evicted from their land in 1845. That forced them to come to America legally so they wouldn’t starve. Pardon me if I reject the ‘white privilege’ scenario if applied to my family.”
Saints alive! Where should I begin?
Irish immigrants did have a hard time at first
First, I’m sorry that O’Reilly’s ancestors fell on hard times, and that they had to come to America for a second chance. But I’m also grateful they came. The Irish immigrants who were brave enough to make their way to these shores in vessels so dangerous that they became known as “coffin ships,” and sturdy enough to survive and succeed in this country when faced with nativism, exploitation and discrimination deserve our respect.
They didn’t always get it. The Donald Trump of the early 20th Century was Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts who despised various immigrant groups — Italians, Jews, Russians, Austrians, etc. — who he claimed hurt the U.S. economy and lowered “the quality of American citizenship.”
I can relate. My family knows what it is like to struggle financially and persevere against prejudice, as do many families in the Latino community. There is only one immigrant in my ancestral tree — my paternal grandfather, Roman, who came to the United States with his family during the Mexican Revolution to escape poverty, corruption and violence in Mexico. Like many Mexicans, my grandpa worked hard his whole life, overcame obstacles and raised children who served in the military and lived their versions of the American Dream.
As for coming legally, my family can relate to that too. Like each of the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who left Mexico during the revolution, my grandfather came legally. But no gold star for him.
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With a few exceptions like those immigrants from the Far East targeted by the Chinese Exclusion of 1882, it was very difficult for anyone to come illegally until after the Immigration Act of 1924. Also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, the bill set quotas on the number of immigrants who could come legally from certain countries. It favored the English, German — and to a lesser degree Irish — and kept out immigrants from “Southern Europe.” The legislation might as well have been called the “Italian Exclusion Act.”
The same goes for the O’Reilly brood, which we’re told came to the United States shortly after 1845. Of course, they came legally. At that time, how else could they come? Bill should be humbler about that fact.
Lastly, O’Reilly “rejects” the idea that his ancestors — or their descendants — benefited from “white privilege.”
So what? He can reject it all he wants, and he might have a point when it comes to that initial wave of Irish family members from County Cavan. But there have been two or three generations of O’Reillys born in the United States since then.
Sorry, O’Reilly, white privilege is real
It’s hard to know what breaks these members of the family — including Bill himself — got as a result of being born white, or put differently as a result of not being born Latino or African-American. In response to O’Reilly’s tweet, some people did point out that the Irish Americans of today have never experienced a time where their ethnic heritage limits opportunity in America.
This much I do know: white privilege is real. It rears its head all the time and in a variety of arenas — from the job market to media to universities to the criminal justice system.
For example, all human beings fail. But many of the white men I know have the tendency to fail up; when most of my Latino and African-American friends fail, they fail all the way down. White males often get multiple chances to correct mistakes, reinvent themselves, or launch a new career; my Latino and African-American friends often find it more difficult to bounce back, and they frequently have to overcome rigid notions of how they should think or behave. And how many times do we have to read about a white judge handling down a lighter sentence to a white man that he’s not ready to write off, when Latinos and Africans who come before the bench are written off all the time.
The point is, if you don’t see white privilege, it may be because you’ve experienced it for so long that you just consider it normal. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Again, I’m glad O’Reilly went to Ireland. All Americans should try to uncover our family history. Hopefully, once we do, instead of trying to set our ancestors apart, we’ll develop more of that one commodity we all need more of these days: empathy.
Ruben Navarrette Jr., a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and host of the daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation.” Follow him on Twitter: @RubenNavarrette.