Frame Game

The Prosecution of Juan Williams

Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates have “busted” Juan Williams. Are they right?

NPR host Juan Williams and U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond. Click image to expand.
Juan Williams (left) and Strom Thurmond

Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates are two of my favorite writers. They’re tough-minded and independent. They’ve helped make the Atlantic’s stable of bloggers the best in the business. But in the case of Juan Williams, I think they’ve made a mistake.

Sullivan and Coates accuse Williams of bigotry—and Sullivan says Williams was appropriately fired—for his comments a week ago on Fox News. As Sullivan notes, Williams told Bill O’Reilly:

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. Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America’s war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts.

Describing this incident, Sullivan writes: “Williams is not observing and airing the irrational fear of Muslims who put their Muslim identity first and foremost, airing a fact, he is saying it is justified given the extremist Muslim origin of recent terrorism.”

But where did Williams say irrational fear of Muslims is justified? Didn’t he go on in his next breath, and in the remainder of the conversation, to say precisely the opposite—that the problem is extremism rather than Islam, that we aren’t at war with a religion, that it would be wrong to generalize about Christians from Christian terrorism, and that anti-Muslim rhetoric might encourage anti-Muslim violence?

Sullivan further accuses Williams of “peddling bigotry.” Where, exactly, is the peddling?

Later, Sullivan accuses Williams of an “extreme double standard” between anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-black bigotry. Sullivan cites a 1986 New Republic colloquium about jewelry store owners who sometimes used a buzz-in system to (in TNR’s words) “exclude young black males on the grounds that these people are most likely to commit a robbery.” He flags these remarks from Williams about the practice:

1) “Unless I am a racist, race and age cannot be the sole deciding factors in calculating whom I will and will not let into my store.”2) “Common sense becomes racism when skin color becomes a formula for figuring out who is a danger to me.”

On the basis of these remarks (in which Sullivan has inserted the italics), Sullivan declares Williams “busted.” He writes:

[T]here is no statistical reason whatever to get nervous around those in Muslim garb on airplanes—since no terror attacks in America have been conducted by people in that attire. Yet that factor—and that alone—is what [Williams] invokes to justify his fear. This is anti-religious bigotry in its purest, clearest form.
In stark contrast, in the case of generalizing about nervousness and suspicion of thievery toward African-American men, Williams is far more circumspect. He takes statistical evidence into account; he looks for aspects in a human being that, independent of their race, might make one suspicious. He rules out judgment based on their clothing or their “acting nervously”. But when it comes to Muslims in traditional garb, he feels nervous because of that fact alone, and associates them immediately with a terror suspect involving Islam in general—not radical Jihadism—as at war with the West.

Again, where did Williams “justify” his fear of people in Muslim garb? I see his acknowledgment of the fear. But where is his attempt to justify it? And where is his attempt to justify disparate treatment based on it?

Furthermore, where’s the double standard? Yes, Williams “feels nervous” about Muslims in traditional garb. And yes, he rules out color or clothing as a basis for “judging” jewelry-store customers or “calculating whom I will and will not let into my store.” How is this contradictory? In one case Williams is talking about an instant gut feeling; in the other case, he’s talking about reasoned reflection and treatment of the individuals in question. Aren’t these two statements—which Sullivan holds up as “dispositive proof of Williams’ bigoted double standards“—perfectly consistent with what Williams said Friday on Good Morning America? To wit:

What I said was that if I’m at the gate at an airport, and I see people who are in Muslim garb who are first and foremost identifying themselves as Muslims, and in the aftermath of 9/11, I am taken aback. I have a moment of fear, and it is visceral; it’s a feeling. And I don’t say, “I’m not getting on the plane.” I don’t say, “You must go through additional security.” I don’t say I want to discriminate against these people. No such thing occurs.

Isn’t it pretty clear that Williams is distinguishing between momentary, irrational fear and considered, rational behavior? Isn’t that exactly how our brains are designed to operate, according to the psychological model outlined in Slate by Shankar Vedantam? We experience fear, nervousness, and raw association, but we counter these with statistics, evidence, calculation, and judgment. Your “hidden brain” fears the young black man at the door, but your reason prevails, and you buzz him in. Jesse Jackson relaxes when he sees that the guy behind him is white, but he spends his life fighting for the right not to be judged by color.

This is where I think Coates goes wrong, too. He writes:

Prejudice is not wrong because it is uncivil, impolite or unsympathetic. It is wrong because it is weak thinking. In the case of Williams, it means believing that a terrorist would be so stupid as to board a plane dressed in a dishdasha and clutching the Koran.

If by “prejudice” you mean Williams’ initial fear of the guy in the dishdasha, I’d argue, based on Vedantam’s model, that this fear isn’t thinking at all. It certainly isn’t believing. That’s why it’s weak and stupid. But I wouldn’t call it prejudice, since the core of that word is judgment. Williams’ beliefs and judgments about how to treat Muslims are quite clear from his conversation with O’Reilly. They aren’t in the quote cited by Coates and Sullivan. They start where that quote stops.

Coates argues that it’s misleading to compare Williams to Shirley Sherrod (but somehow apt to compare Williams to Strom Thurmond) because Sherrod “did not tell [her] story to show her sympathy for bigoted black people,” whereas Williams “makes a career amicably discussing bigotry with bigots” instead of “confronting bigotry.” I think this is a misconception of the relationship between sympathy, amicable discussion, and confrontation. Coates is right that Williams, by conceding his fear and quoting the Times Square bomber, expressed sympathy with O’Reilly. But Williams immediately followed these concessions by reminding O’Reilly that Islam isn’t the enemy. And whom did Williams cite on this point? George W. Bush. And when Williams noted the illogic of generalizing about the violence of other religious groups, which group did he choose as his example? Christians.

This is how you confront bigotry effectively. You concede what’s true (yes, there’s Islamic terrorism, and yes, many of us fear it), and you lead your host away from what’s false by invoking authorities and groups with whom he can sympathize. And, yes, you discuss this bigotry with bigots, since those are the people who need talking to. This isn’t corruption or cowardice. It’s persuasion.

I look forward to a world in which no American fears a Muslim on a plane. I hope writers like Coates, Sullivan, and me will help us get there. But in the meantime, we face more immediate threats. One is the small number of Americans who think their raw fear or anger at Muslims justifies violence. Another is the very large number of Americans, including dozens of congressional candidates and the next speaker of the House, who think Muslims shouldn’t build a mosque in a place that strikes the majority as “insensitive.” The task before us is to defuse such violence and discrimination by encouraging reflection on the emotions that underlie them. And to reflect on those emotions, we need to be honest about them. Williams’ conversation with O’Reilly was part of that process. He shouldn’t have been fired for it, and he doesn’t deserve to be called a bigot. Eventually, I think Coates and Sullivan will agree.

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