Bill O’Reilly isn’t exactly known for his political correctness, so maybe it should come as no surprise that the controversial Fox News figure came out with a segment discussing the “interesting history” behind Michelle Obama’s comment on watching her daughters grow up in a house built by slaves. The history of the White House certainly is interesting, but Bill O’Reilly’s comments weren’t intended to comment on that, they were meant to make American slavery appear a lot less dehumanizing and impactful than it was. Not to mention how it dismisses the impact slavery continues to have to this day and feeds the white nationalist segment of the Republican Party.
No parsing words, American chattel slavery was one of the most dehumanizing institutions in the history of mankind. That’s not to say there aren’t less than absolutely terrible stories that can be picked out and shown off, but Bill O’Reilly wasn’t even really doing that. This wasn’t some story about a slave who worked on the White House and relished in being able to take part in making history despite his status, a slave who yearned for freedom and got a small amount of hope from good old American symbolism. Nope, Bill O’Reilly does everything he can to minimize the historical gravity of the cold hard truth, slaves built the White House.
Bill O’Reilly lauded Michelle Obama for speaking “positively of America” and sending a good message, but out of all that positivity it’s no coincidence that he chose specifically the line about slaves to quibble with. Granted it was a widely talked about line, but O’Reilly’s historical analysis doesn’t contribute much more beyond Michelle’s speech. O’Reilly claimed that “between 1795 and 1801 there are over 400 payments recorded to slave masters.” This claim while technically true, doesn’t really adequately describe the conditions or amount of slaves that helped build the White House, but then again, it doesn’t really minimize anything either.
The next comments Bill O’Reilly made are the real problem, after discussing the amount of slaves he instantly goes into how slaves weren’t the only people working on the White House and highlighted just how well treated they were. O’Reilly stated, “in addition free blacks, whites, and immigrants also worked on the massive building. There were no illegal immigrants because at the time if you could make it here you could stay.” That might also be technically true, but out of all the comments that could be made about the thousands of slaves who built the White House the best Harvard history major Bill O’Reilly could come up with is “there were other people building it too.”
That’s not even the worst of the comments though, Bill O’Reilly’s quip about slaves being well fed and well housed is the worst. The conditions don’t matter, who the slaves worked with don’t really matter, what matters is the house is built by slaves. In a historical discussion maybe the specifics matter a little bit, but on a national news broadcast a little quip about how well the slaves who built the White House were treated seems unnecessary and out of place. If slavery is going to be discussed it should be done openly and honestly, not with coded language and intent to minimize the racial divide in the country, because that’s exactly how that racial divide was created in the first place.