Sunday, March 2, 2008

Why I called Juan Williams a "Happy Negro" on CNN

Why I called Juan Williams a “Happy Negro” On CNN and Why He and Bill O’Reilly Were Not Happy About It

A friend, Valencia Roner, called me one night to ask if I watch “The O’Reilly Factor." I said, “No, I don’t watch silly, racist television programs.” She then informed me that I might want to watch this particular episode. Why? Because I was the topic of conversation. For the entire show.

I set the DVR and went to sleep.

I woke up the next morning to watch what had been recorded. Valencia was right. Bill O’Reilly and his loyal sidekick, Juan Williams, were showing images of my CNN appearances and playing my comments repeatedly, like "SportsCenter" highlights. I’ve never seen so many guests asked for comments about someone else’s comments. This continued throughout the week, as Bill O’Reilly spent 5 episodes in a row expressing his disdain for my critique of his racist remarks and Williams’ support of them.

During the show, Juan Williams and Bill O’Reilly sat there congratulating each other like brothers for allegedly winning the “smear campaign” placed upon them by CNN. I listened to O’Reilly tell the world that CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, and other news organizations were all corrupt, but not him. Juan Williams even wrote a piece about me in Time magazine, in addition to making several radio and TV appearances to complain about my words.

Watching one episode, I honestly thought Juan was going to cry. He continuously pleaded with “Mr. O’Reilly” (in a self-degrading sort of way) to understand that he cares about black people and that “people like Dr. Boyce Watkins” were simply race mongers who want to keep black people poor and pathetic. Yes, Juan Williams and Bill O’Reilly were simply misunderstood freedom fighters… quaint.

I was asked on CNN (and other shows) about O’Reilly’s racist remarks about Sylvia’s, a black restaurant in Harlem. In his comments, O’Reilly said that he could not get over the fact that the people were civil and well-behaved. He commended black people for finally learning to “think for themselves” and was relieved that there was no one in the restaurant saying “MF-er, I want more ice tea (Good thing no one was really thirsty!)."

O’Reilly, the man who later mentioned wanting to “lynch” Michelle Obama, tried to argue that his comments were meant to compliment the black community. He said that they were meant to defy stereotypes. As humbly and naive as a school girl, he argued that he was only intending to shed light on how racial stereotypes are bad for our society. Like the movie “Transformers," Bill O'Reilly, “America’s educated redneck," had morphed himself into Martin Luther King Jr.

On CNN, I essentially explained that anyone who thought Bill O’Reilly was suddenly a reformed racist who’d seen the light needs to be checked for drugs. I’ve been on this man’s show before, and he has consistently demeaned, degraded and devalued everything about black culture he could get his hands on (remember when he said that Katrina victims would not have been stranded on rooftops if they’d chosen to get an education?). I also mentioned that I was unimpressed with Juan Williams’ agreement and defense of O’Reilly. Seeing Juan Williams sitting there congratulating O’Reilly for his bigotry reminded me of the Negro in the white suit defending “massa” at all costs. His attitudes were consistent with his latest and most terrible book, which does nothing but blast black culture and black people, as if we are the sole causes of socio-economic inequality.

Therefore, I could only use terms I felt appropriate. I defined Juan Williams as "the Happy Negro." On CNN, I compared Bill O’Reilly’s use of Williams to Hugh Hefner hiring a stripper to tell him that he’s not a sexist. Juan was irate after hearing my words. In other words, “the Happy Negro” was no longer happy.

I am not sure how smart or dumb Juan Williams is (without bragging, I can say that I have three times more education than him, but I presume he is of at least average intelligence.). I hope he has enough sense to know that he is being used by a man who has consistently and reliably shown himself to be an enemy of black people.

I have -- through my books “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about College” and “What If George Bush Were a Black Man?” -- consistently attacked problems in the black community. I have spoken to millions of African-Americans about the value of getting an education and managing their money. I wish I could tell you how many times I argued with CNN producers to cover the Jena Six story long before it was popular to do so. So, everything that Juan Williams might say about advancing the community has been consistently on my radar screen.

But here is where Juan Williams and I differ.

I am very hard on the black community about improving our plight. But I am also man enough to challenge the white community, the media, universities, corporations and other American institutions for their role in creating racial inequality. Racism is a disease that lies within the fabric of nearly every American institution. So, any conversation about racial inequality that does not include White America’s flaws and roles in the process is ridiculous, misguided and counterproductive. In mathematics, I learned that you cannot solve a problem without working with both sides of the equation. The functions and systems of that equation are at least as important as the individual parameters. In other words, a society’s systems and historical oppressors play a powerful role in the creation of incentives, opportunities and outcomes of the individual.

Many black conservatives are simply afraid to challenge white America to acknowledge their personal responsibility in the creation and perpetuation of racial inequality; for this is biting the hand that feeds them (How long would Juan Williams be on the Fox News payroll if he were to tell white America that their institutions and attitudes are a large cause of racial inequality? Contrary to Bill O'Reilly's indication, I am not compensated by CNN or any other networks for what I say.). It also feeds directly into white supremacy to say, “The black community is in shambles because black people are making bad choices. The 400 years of oppression have nothing to do with the last 30 years of expression.” Hence, we have Bill O’Reilly getting his rear-end rubbed by Juan Williams, as they both agree that black people are just stupid.

Bill O’Reilly claimed that Rev. Jesse Jackson, another guest on the show, was appalled by what I said about Juan Williams, but of course he could not validate his claims on camera. I got a call the very next morning from Jackson’s daughter Santita and received no indication of disapproval from the Jackson family. I am sure that if they had disagreed, they would have told me personally. Santita is a good friend and straight shooter.

Juan Williams believes he can fool us into thinking that he is contributing to the advancement of black people by teaming up with a proven racist who has KKK members and Neo-Nazis watching his show (You should see the language used in my hate mail.). A man who has a problem with President Bush would not team up with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to go after Bush. No matter how valid his arguments might be, the fact is that such actions amount to treason and are ultimately destructive. Having a black face does not mean you care about the black race. Clarence Thomas taught us that.

Hence, at the end of the day, I still call Juan Williams "the Happy Negro." I stand by my remarks and might even put it on a t-shirt. From the response I've gotten so far, I wouldn't be the only one wearing it.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and author of “What if George Bush were a Black Man?” He does regular commentary for CNN, BET, ESPN and CBS. For more information, please visit

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