Juan Williams: Brutally Honest, Not Bigoted

The difference between the political commentator and his critics? He’s open about fears that many people experience but won’t talk about.

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One big difference between Juan Williams and a lot of folks is that he's been brutally honest about thoughts that cross his mind in certain situations. Five months after he shared such thoughts on how airline passengers in "Muslim garb" make him "worried" and "nervous," Williams has done it again.

This time, while guest-hosting The O'Reilly Factor last week, Williams spoke of being fearful of "black men." That revelation came up after his guest, Occidental College professor Caroline Helmand, said she considered his comments about Muslims "bigoted," and then offered an analogy.

"I think that if I were to say that I clutch my purse every time I walk by a black man, that might resonate with a lot of Americans," she said. "It might be the truth, but it's a bigoted statement."

Williams said he couldn't believe her stance, adding that experiencing nervousness while "walking by a black man" doesn't make you a bigot. "Let me just tell you," he said, "with the amount of black-on-black crime in America, I get nervous and I'm a black man."

If we stop right here, this is far worse than his comments on Muslims. In that instance, at least he said that certain clothing can trigger an emotion. And even though would-be Muslim terrorists are more likely to dress conservatively than dress like bin Laden, it's understandable if passengers wearing smaghs, kurta shirts and dishdashas elicit a double take.

However, there are few among us who honestly can't relate to what Williams said next. "If I saw a couple of guys walking around, looking like thugs down the street late at night, you're saying, 'Oh, I'm not going to think it through'?"

Of course you are. But now we have some context, instead of the one-size-fits-all "black men" comment. You're out late at night, and some thuggish-looking young'uns are approaching. Or you're on the subway train and a loud, profane and demonstrative group of what seem like hoodlums swarm into your car. In those cases, as a black man, hell, yes, the thought would cross my mind that they might -- emphasis on "might" -- be looking for trouble.

But certain characters in similar situations would create the same feeling. Bald-headed white dudes with swastika tattoos, black jump boots and excessive facial piercings. A group of menacing-looking young men of any race or ethnicity, especially at certain times of the day and in certain settings, is bound to trigger a knee-jerk reaction.

But wait! Judging people by their appearance is profiling! Yes, it is. And we make snap judgments all the time. Some are reasonable and off the mark. Some are unreasonable and off the mark. Some are spot-on accurate. In any case, it's only a problem when law-enforcement officers stop people without cause. Or when we allow any initial fear from prejudgments to override subsequent evidence to the contrary. 

Take this instance that failed the sniff test when I was a newspaper reporter in Fort Myers, Fla. It was pouring that morning when I arrived at work and turned in to the employee parking lot, where I found a line of several cars ahead of me. A white gentleman with an umbrella was standing at the gate, swiping a security card to allow each car to enter.