Juan Williams and the meaning of bigotry

I am startled by the news that NPR has sacked Juan Williams, apparently for saying this on The O’Reilly Factor:

I mean, 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.

If you’ve read his books or listened to much of his commentary on Fox or NPR, you know that Williams is not a bigot. That is something that the bloggers celebrating his firing ought to notice. But do his comments, taken in isolation, deserve to be condemned? I don’t think so. Williams was not expressing hatred or intolerance of Muslims. He was confessing to the kind of anxiety that I suspect many and possibly most Americans feel. (Watch the body language in the departure lounge.) He was acknowledging a sad reality.

Jesse Jackson once said,

There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved….

I don’t think that made Jackson a bigot, either. If we want the charge to retain its sting, as we should, we ought to use it cautiously. It needs to mean something worse than ordinary human weakness. Show me some malice. (The remarks that led to Helen Thomas’s forced retirement would qualify.) If what Williams said was bigoted, then this is a nation of bigots, and the term no longer means anything.

Williams is an excellent, open-minded commentator and a great loss to NPR. I think the decision to sack him was shameful.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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