Black folks are, by and large, understanding when it’s time to get that paper. Whether it’s Barack Obama getting $400,000 to give a few speeches, athletes trying to sell $500 shoes—heck, even strippers on the pole—when it comes to jobs, most black people won’t bat an eye as long as it’s legal, profitable and isn’t a violation of core principles of decency.
In fact, there are only about three jobs in existence that, if announced at the cookout, would lead to significant side eye, conceited GIFs or a quick flash from a cellphone camera:
- Working in Donald Trump’s White House;
- Working for the Milwaukee, Ferguson, Mo., or Tulsa, Okla., Police Department;
- Or working at Fox News.
These are the places that are forever perceived, for good reason, as purveying direct violence, whether rhetorical, political or physical, against the African-American community. Yet logic dictates that inside these organizations, there have to be people just making a paycheck like anybody else would. I mean, not everybody working at the Death Star was evil, right? You figure the entire staff of Hydra didn’t want to rule the world; some just needed good health care, didn’t they?
With that in mind, we spoke to an employee of a perceived “Evil Empire,” Eboni K. Williams of Fox News. Williams was recently promoted from regular contributor to co-host of Fox News’ newest show, The Specialists, which debuted this month, airing Monday through Friday at 5 p.m.
In the wake of massive scandals about sexual harassment, racial discrimination and “fake news” charges, we asked Williams what it is like to be one of the few black faces at Fox; how she tries to be an advocate for the issues that matter; and if she’s been formally uninvited from every family barbecue until Trump leaves office.
The Root: Tell us a little about yourself. I know you’re a lawyer, you were first runner-up in North Carolina for Miss USA a few years ago and you’re the first black woman to co-host a show on Fox News in prime time. But that’s all résumé stuff; how did you get to where you are now ?
Eboni K. Williams: I’m a trial lawyer by trade, I was a loud mouth in school and teachers always paid attention to me when I raised my hand. Plus, my mom was incarcerated for a year when I was 3 years old, so I saw some personal reasons for good legal counsel. Trial work was rewarding; I loved my work as a public defender and a private attorney. But then I started thinking about media. The benefit of media is that it’s fast; I could make a difference. I could tell a judge, or I could tell Bill O’Reilly in front of millions of people.
TR: You would be speaking to millions of a certain kind of people—conservative, mostly older, white people whose politics and information levels are often at odds with mainstream America. It would be one thing if you were an African-American conservative, but you’re not; you’re pretty moderate or center left. Why did you make the choice to go to Fox News?
EKW: I went to NABJ [the National Association of Black Journalists conference] in Orlando in 2013 trying to break into this industry—I thought a lot about who are we making content for. We make content for us as black people because what white people think about us doesn’t really matter, right? But what white people think of us matters a lot, particularly when you’ve got 12 in a box [a jury].
That was the summer of George Zimmerman’s case. The prosecutors were really poor in their ability to humanize young Trayvon Martin. I felt like, if those jurors had a more normalized concept of black people, in particular in those kind of environments, it would make a difference. For the first two years I was on Fox, I wasn’t paid. If I had been on MSNBC or CNN, it might’ve been more comfortable, but it wouldn’t have necessarily fit in with my mission. I wanted to get in front of audiences that usually don’t see us.
TR: What has been your gender and race experience internally at Fox News? Have you been directly involved or seen some of the behavior that led to lawsuits?
EKW: Ultimately, those have not been my personal experiences. I do recognize that both of those issues, both race- and genderwise, even if I have not experienced those specific instances, we [at Fox] do have a problem. What I see as my role, as a current employee in the midst of these horrific challenges and circumstances, is to make change. I have gone to human resources and given them very plainspoken ways in which they can improve upon those dynamics, and ways to make it easier to report those instances.
I never had that experience with Bill O’Reilly—but I will not, nor will I ever, suggest that my experience with Bill O’Reilly is reflective on everyone’s experiences. He treated me as a professional—moody, but as a professional—but I don’t for one second kid myself to think that is Bill O’Reilly in his totality.
TR: You’re now a co-host on The Specialists, which airs Monday through Friday at 5 p.m. Eastern time. This is a very high-profile position and a first at the network. The perception among many is that black folks working at Fox News are either co-signing some of the worst rhetoric at the network or are powerless to do anything about it. As a contributor and now host, how do you feel when the network consistently gives a platform to racists whose beliefs aren’t challenged?
EKW: How does it feel? My answer is, it feels like shit, but I have decided that for me, it has some value to correct the record on occasion. My experience has been that the longer I am in front of the Fox News audience, the more I get that opportunity [to correct the record]. A gentle but consistent reminder of what the facts really are.
TR: What do you say to the people who say you’re wasting your time? That you’re not going to change any minds, especially in the era of Trump?
EKW: I wouldn’t dispute that I can’t drown it all out. What I still have some belief in is that I will still be able to have some impact for some people. So am I going to magically change all this discourse and change their entire viewership into sympathizers of Black Lives Matter? No. But I do think that there is a portion of the viewership—it’s not just me; it’s Juan Williams, it’s Richard Fowler—by seeing a few black voices that speak about an authentically black experience, that there will be some viewers that will change. Especially when these people are determining real consequences [like on a jury]. That’s where that little bit of incremental movement might matter.
TR: Since joining Fox News full time, what’s your public relationship been like with the African-American community?
EKW: I mean, you just caught me between watching the One and Not Done ESPN doc on John Calipari and switching to the Miss America pageant. That’s pretty much me. There are those who knew me all along when I was on TV One and Aspire; they are completely lovely; they express pride and pleasure because they know what I’m trying to do.
Fox’s black viewership is hovering around 1.5 percent; if you don’t watch Fox News and you haven’t seen me on, then you really have no context. I would implore those who have never seen me on, before they make presumptions—and I understand that some of those are completely legitimate—that black folks should be able to choose where they work. I’m not saying “Rah-rah, Fox News, turn it on!” Just remember to check out the bigger picture, the bigger landscape. At least you can have a more informed conclusion. I get this hour Monday through Friday to pitch my thoughts, my analysis and my pitches that more accurately reflect my and our experiences.