What is Bigotry?

Jeff Alworth

"I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality. 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."

The big news today does not revolve around President Obama's visit to Oregon (though it's almost impossible to imagine otherwise!), but around NPR's abrupt dismissal of longtime political analyst Juan Williams. Much like the recent cases of Rick Sanchez and Helen Thomas, Williams waded into a racial thicket, with predictable results. (Though this case is definitely strange: Williams is a black pundit who has commented widely about the civil rights movement.)

The reaction has been astounding in scope, but nevertheless follows familiar contours: some people invoke "political correctness," others the evils of Fox News; some make claims about the first amendment, others the sanctimony of NPR. What I've found remarkable in the whole affair, though, is that we're not agreeing about the underlying facts of the case. Whether NPR was right to fire Williams is beside the point. The more pertinent question: was Williams' comment bigoted? You'd think this would be easy to answer, but no.

Here's a sampling of some of the comments:

"My Fox News Sunday colleague Juan Williams has been fired by NPR for telling an inconvenient truth.... Do the powers-that-be at NPR think Juan Williams is a bigot? Do they think a traveler who has a reaction (fair or unfair) like the one Juan describes, in our age of terror in the name of Islam, is a bigot?" --Bill Kristol

"The bottom line here is that equating Muslims with Terrorism -- which is exactly what Williams did -- is definitively bigoted." --Glenn Greenwald

"The comments were his personal admission that while he is certainly not a bigot, he said he was nervous when someone in Muslim garb and spouting Muslim doctrine got on an airplane on which he was a passenger." --Mike Huckabee

"No, Juan, what you just described is the working definition of bigotry." --Andrew Sullivan

"Are we not allowed to say that Muslim terrorists have killed thousands of Americans and continue to plot the deaths of thousands more? ...Are we not allowed to even debate the role that radical Islam plays in inciting this violence?" --Sarah Palin

So which was it, truth-telling or the unintentional slip of the lip that revealed hidden bigotry? It's a timely moment to unpack the question, because this case stands as a perfect metaphor for the unspoken content behind much of our political discourse.

People have all kinds of different reactions to other people for all kinds of different reasons. The most interesting thing Williams said wasn't that he was scared of Muslims--certainly a forgivable emotion. He might even have unpacked it and called the fear irrational. The more damning part of the comment is when he qualified the statement by saying "political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality." And Williams wasn't just mispeaking. When he discussed the termination today, he repeated the sentiment:

"It’s an honest experience in an airport when I see people who are in Muslim garb who identify themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I do a double take, I have a moment of anxiety or fear given what happened on 9/11. That’s just the reality."

Williams has conflated his own very real emotion and the danger posed by Muslims. It is especially poignant because, as many people have observed, this is exactly what whites used to say about blacks. Juan Williams surely saw the dehumanizing effect of bigotry against blacks in the 50s and 60s as he grew up--that he misses the moment he dehumanizes Muslims is a sad irony.

We tend to attach a kind of moral failing to bigotry in excess of the actual offense. In our hearts, we have all encountered our own ungenerous feelings toward others. The cause may be based on our feelings about race or region or religion--or any of an infinite number of potential prejudices--but surely we all recognize it. I don't really care if NPR fires Williams or not, but it does seem like an important moment to stop and try to find agreement over the terms of the debate. If we can do that, perhaps we can start to seize back some of that hidden territory that remains undiscussed in so many other of our political debates. if we can see the bigotry--in ourselves and others--then we can actually address it.

Comments

  • (Show?)

    I wonder what his supporters would have said had he made the following statement:

    But when I am waiting at Planned Parenthood, I got to tell you, if I see people who are wearing Christian crosses and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Christians, I get worried. I get nervous."

    [not my belief, just an example]

    • (Show?)

      There are many examples one can use. Like would Williams think a person who said when they see black people wearing baggy pants etc, they aren't viewing through a racial prejudice?

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    Greenwald and Sullivan's assessments of this incident are on the mark. Juan Williams labeled an entire religion as terrorist, and ethnic clothing as un-American. It's bigotry.

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    Eexactly right--it's textbook. When you take visual, ascribed cues to make broad generalizations about everyone who shares those ascriptions--that's bigotry.

    Which is why I have to question the equivalence with Helen Thomas, who was asked about a specific group of people acting in common purpose--that is, running a country called Israel. She was responding to what should happen in the Middle East between the actual players in that conflict. She was attacking specific actions and recourse for a specific group. I did not hear her blame non-Israeli jews for the Middle East.

    That's not what Williams did: he was ascribing nefarious motive to ALL Muslims, and in fact anyone who he perceives to BE Muslim whether they are or not, based on the actions of those presumed unrelated to them but who share characteristics.

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    To append: I think the Sanchez comparison was apt; a generalization.

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    With apologies to Michael P: Imagine if Williams had said to (the very Catholic) O'Reilly, "Whenever I pass a school yard and see a priest with a group of young boys I think 'that man, dressed like that, is obviously a Catholic priest first', and I am very nervous and afraid for those young boys". O'Reilly would have said, "Only natural", right? Williams is only expressing what we all know and are thniking. No harm in that. Yeah, right.

  • (Show?)

    When I first heard the quote replayed, I expected to hear that he followed it with something like, "But of course, despite that instinctive anxiety, it's wrong to feel that way. We shouldn't broadbrush an entire religion because of a few fanatical terrorists."

    But he didn't say that.

    • (Show?)

      I recognize that very few people here get their news from Fox or watch the O'Reilly factor, but I do. Had you watched the entire segment you would have heard Juan Williams make statements to the effect of: "You can't judge an entire religion by the acts of some of their members" and words to that effect at least twice; one before and one after (I believe) of his allegedly inflammatory statement. I have seen Juan on Fox many many times before and have always found him to be extremely fair minded and objective. Juan isn't a bigot, what he said was the truth about what he felt when he saw Muslims in their garb waiting to get on the same plane he was getting on. I have a hard time imagining that there is anyone who wouldn't at least entertain the same thought even if only for a fleeting second under the same circumstances. The only bigots in this story are all at NPR and I support the movement underway to take away the support they receive from the taxayers of this country due to the intolerance and ignorance they demonstrated by firing Juan. I have heard statements from some of the other NPR on air people that are 100x more agregious than Juan truthfully saying what 99% of the rest of us think.

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    Williams was talking about an instinctive reaction he has. He would agree it is wrong to feel that way, but that is the way he feels. It doesn't make him a bigot.

    Also, I believe he prefaced his words by saying he is not a bigot, and referenced his civil rights writing as evidence of that.

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      I think this is instructive, Ed. At what point, in your view, would it cross the threshold into "bigotry"?

    • (Show?)

      "I believe he prefaced his words by saying he is not a bigot, and referenced his civil rights writing as evidence of that."

      It's quite possible to support civil rights for some groups and be bigoted toward others.

      I wonder how Mr. Williams would react if a white pundit said he gets nervous when he's walking alone down a street at night and sees an African-American man walking toward him. Same thing.

    • (Show?)

      Every time someone starts a sentence with "I am not _ but..." you can almost always be assured that they ARE ____ and are about to prove it by the rest of their statement.

      Stating you are not a bigot doesn't make it so.

  • (Show?)

    From Websters:

    Definition of BIGOT : a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance

    This definitely does not describe Juan Williams.

    • (Show?)

      I'm not so sure that's right.

      It seems to me that Williams is treating those who self-identify as Muslims with intolerance.

      • (Show?)

        Juan didn't treat anyone any differently Carla. All he did was state that seeing them caused him to have the same thoughts every single person in the same situation would have...

    • (Show?)

      "one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance"

      Williams expressed a lack of tolerance for all members of a religious group (or those dressed in ways he things typify membership in that group), in so far as he would consider their presence in certain situations (on an airplane) would make him "nervous." He limited those feelings to members of a specific religious group--individuals dressed in ways that indicated identification with other religious groups were not included.

      If he had said that "anyone in religious garb on a plane makes me nervous," he would have expressed a general intolerance of those who dress in religious garb; since singled out a specific religion for his intolerance, it seems to me he easily fits your/Webster's definition of bigot.

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        "Anyone in religious garb" haven't been responsible for every single act of terrorism involving airplanes exploding for the last 20 years Jay. That honor belongs only to Muslims. To the degree that Juan singled them out I would have to think that they have singled themselves out to be identified or thought of this way. I have seen and heard Juan Williams frequently over the last five years and there isn't a bigoted bone in his body. A person should never in a position of losing his job for telling the truth.

        • (Show?)

          "they have singled themselves out to be identified or thought of this way"

          There's your bigotry, plain as day. Since when to 20 individuals get to speak hundreds of millions of people? Those 20 (or, if we must the few hundred or thousand--at most--radical, terrorist-supporting jihadists) speak only for themselves. They no more speak for all Muslims than they speak for all men, or all middle-easterners or all people with brown hair. (I don't even know if they all had brown hair. Does that assumption make ME a racist?)

          Roger, in terms of trying to make yourself sound un-predjudiced, you just stuck a fork in yourself.

          You're done.

  • (Show?)

    juan williams admitted to a human frailty; i.e, when confronted with a group dressed in gard that has become representative of splinter factiions of that group he gets nervous. 'he stated muslims and in the progressive political double-speak world of NPR he was fired.

    Has Mr. Williams mentioned white southerners in Confederate battle flad T-shirts, NPR toting handguns or anti-abortionists outside an abortion clinic with their pictures of post abortion remains he would still be working for NPR.

    Their hypocracy has establsihed new lows.

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      If Juan had said any of your hypothetical counter-examples, Fox News and you would be screaming he should be fired.

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      I'm pretty sure you're able to put down the flag, the gun, or the gruesome picture of the fetus. Religion is also a choice ultimately, but people sitting on a plane in "Muslim garb" (whatever that is; for the 9/11 attackers that would be khaki pants) don't have the choice to not "look Muslim."

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    I think it would cross into bigotry if Williams had gone on to say, "And since that makes me feel uncomfortable, I should have the option of traveling on a Muslim-free flight" or "Therefore Muslims should be forced to undergo more stringent security tests so that I will feel more secure."

    Instead, he simply acknowledged his own emotional reaction, over which he really has no control. But I guess as long as he keeps his fears to himself and doesn't admit to them publicly, we can all pretend we live in a world were such fears and discomfort no longer exist.

    Just imagine, if Barack Obama's grandmother had kept her feelings to herself, her grandson might never have understood how pervasive feelings of unease and even fear can be even among those you thought were free from bigotry. And he would have lost one of the most memorable points in his historic civil rights speech.

    • (Show?)

      "he simply acknowledged his own emotional reaction, over which he really has no control."

      But he does have control over what he says on national TV, and as a person in a position of some prominence he needs to exercise good judgment.

      I would have had no problem if Williams had gone on to say: "I know these feelings are illogical, irrational and wrong, because the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists." But he didn't.

    • (Show?)

      And we wouldn't be stuck with a President who is a bigot for two more years ...possibly.

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    Jack, that's not simply what he said. He was equating all Muslims with his own fear. It's not a terrible thing to make that admission. What's problematic is when you think it's right.

    If we were discussing the case of a white man scared of blacks or Latinos, it would set off obvious bells. I think it says a great deal that we don't think that when we're talking about Muslims. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is what led to Japanese internment in the 40s.

    As I say, the irrational fears aren't the problem; it's when we get fooled into thinking they're not irrational.

  • (Show?)

    Jeff, when did Juan Williams say that he was right to be nervous when he saw Muslims on a plane or that his fears were rational? What action did he propose to restrict the rights of Muslims or to punish them for his fears?

    I can't tell if you are blaming Williams for his emotions or his honesty. I suspect it is the latter.

    I think this is one more example of why Eric Holder was right when he said Americans are cowards when it comes to race. I think he would have been even more right to extend that to ethnicity, religion,gender and sexual orientation.

    There's a reason why Barack Obama didn't condemn his grandmother for her fears. It will be interesting to see if he comments on the Juan Williams incident.

    • (Show?)

      He violated his contract at NPR. It's as simple as that. NPR stated:

      "...these specific comments (and others made in the past), are inconsistent with NPR’s ethics code, which applies to all journalists (including contracted analysts):

      'In appearing on TV or other media . . . NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows . . . that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.”

      More fundamentally, 'In appearing on TV or other media including electronic Web-based forums, NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist.'

      Unfortunately, Juan’s comments on Fox violated our standards as well as our values and offended many in doing so."

      He should have been sacked as soon as he started showing up on Faux, which NPR pretty much admitted.

      • (Show?)

        Then NPR needs to apply that standard to the rest of their on air personalities equally. Nina Totenberg stated that she wished that Republican Senators (and jesse Helms in particular)and their innocent grandkids would die a slow, horrible death from AIDS! She didn't get fired... why ?

        Mind if a conservative should call down the wrath of the Almighty upon the head of--say--Barack Obama, and wish out loud that he and his children and his unborn grandchildren would all contract the aids virus and all die slow horrible deaths... he or she would get a different treatment indeed. NPR's hypopcrisy in this regard is legendary and they need to have all public funding pulled immediately.

        http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/5920144/nprs_nina_totenberg_jesse_helms_or.html

        • (Show?)

          Juan Williams violated the policy many times, and was warned many times. This was one time too many, which is exactly what NPR said.

          As far as Nina Totenberg is concerned, all you've got is a 15 year old, 18-second clip in which she says, "if there's retributive justice, he'll get AIDS from a transfusion or one of his grandchildren will get it."

          That's a million miles away from her "wishing" Helms or anyone else would "all die slow horrible deaths"!! Plus, she's being obviously sarcastic, since it is much more likely that the likes of Helms would believe the Wrath of God would give somebody AIDS than that she believes in it herself.

          She made a quip about a hate-filled politician and his hate-filled policies and rhetoric. Williams made a sweeping generalization to justify his own fear of, not just an entire religion, but of anyone who "looks like" they belong to that religion. (Of course, none of the 9/11 hijackers wore "Muslim garb," whatever that is.)

          Your comparison and charges of hypocrisy are laughable and pathetic.

      • (Show?)

        Jeff, this is very well-written comment. Thank you. You're right on target.

        "Scary Muslims" is EXACTLY the same thing as "greedy Jews", etc.

        • (Show?)

          Only Juan Williams didn't say "scary Muslims." He was admitting his reaction to seeing Muslims on a plane since 9/11--not that he thinks all Muslims are terrorists, but that if even one is then his flight is pretty well ruined.

          The point is, he didn't act on his fear nor did he suggest he or anyone else should act on them. But by blaming him for being honest and admitting it, you're saying the best way to respond to such sentiments is to silence them.

          Barack Obama's grandmother and Jesse Jackson have made similar statements about young black males. Does that make them bigots?

          • (Show?)

            Jack,

            If he'd said the same thing about people wearing yarmulkes, or priest's clothes, or a a military uniform, would you think that's okay?

            I'll admit to a mixture of feelings about this. I'm uncomfortable with the first reaction always being that someone loses their job, but that was true with Helen Thomas, too, and she has an even longer history of excellent work.

            The flip side, though, is that it does seem inappropriate for NPR commentators to appear on the chicken coop watching network.

            And, as several have pointed out here, the right only speaks up in defense of people losing their jobs over bigotry when it's someone they see as on their side.

            And, of course, media types on the right get away with stuff all the time that would get most people fired. Namely, they make stuff up and present it as fact. If I did that at my job, I'd lose it in a hurry.

          • (Show?)

            One more thing, is that Williams' comment is just idiotic. The 9/11 hijackers weren't wearing "muslim garb", they did their best to blend in.

            Just like Timothy McVeigh wasn't wearing "military garb" when he drove the truck with the explosives in Oklahoma City.

            Terrorists do their best to blend in, not stand out.

          • (Show?)

            Here is a clip of Nina Totenberg another NPR on air personality wishing the AID's virus on republican US Senators and their children and their grandchildren ... she still works there...why?

            http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/5920144/nprs_nina_totenberg_jesse_helms_or.html

            • (Show?)

              Stop lying about what Nina Totenberg said in 1995. What she said was,

              "if there's retributive justice, he'll get AIDS from a transfusion or one of his grandchildren will get it."

              She's not wishing anything on anybody. And certainly not on Senators plural. Where do get this stuff? She's pointing out that in their own disgusting, hate-filled world view (in which AIDS is punishment from God for the sins of being gay or a Democrat or who knows what the hell else), Helms and his ilk are the one's who should be worried. Karma's a bitch, basically.

              Even if what she said violated her NPR contract, it was one time, 15 years ago. Williams did it over and over again. They warned him, and he still kept doing it. Since this seems to be all you can dig up, I wouldn't be surprised if they talked to Totenberg, too, and she stopped giving opinions, and that was that. If Williams had done that, he'd still be at NPR.

              If you ask me, they gave him way too many 2nd chances. They should have fired him as soon as he joined Fox and gotten it over with.

      • (Show?)

        Or what if he'd said "I can tell if someone's Jewish because some of them look and dress really Jewy?" That's essentially what he did, professing he can pick them out by their "garb," being all Muslim-y in their presentation. And its classic identity reductionism.

        By the way, don't make the Jews feel left out when it comes to terrorism! Even if you don't consider the occupation a terror reign, there is documentation of more typical terrorism events in the years and months preceding the establishment of Israel.

  • (Show?)

    I think the NPR ombuds had the right idea. Williams should have been given the choice between the two gigs. It is likely he would have chosen Fox anyway.

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    "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."

    This is the salient quote. He is making a judgment, not simply reporting an unconscious affective response. The judgment is this: ' Muslims are suspect, because they wear clothes that identify them as Muslims. Being Muslim is more important than being American.'

    That is a prejudgment insinuating that Muslims are suspect in their loyalty, and therefore possible terrorists. That constitutes bigotry towards an ethnic and religious group. If a white person made a judgment about him, a black man getting on a city bus,dressed in ethnic clothes, wouldn't Juan Williams call it bigotry.

    That said, Juan Williams, Mara Liasson, and Cokie Roberts should have all been canned a long time ago from NPR for their moonlighting and divided work loyalties and foremost for their crummy and incompetent work on NPR. I stopped listening to NPR years ago mainly because of their pathetic and utterly stupid political reporting and analysis.

  • (Show?)

    "Christians have a much longer, darker history of that in this country..."

    Can you elaborate, please, and provide specifics?

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      I was referring specifically to the Klan.

    • (Show?)

      There's also Paul Hill, Shelley Shannon, Michael Griffin, Eric Rudolph, John Salvi, James Kopp, Scott Roeder, John Earl, Patricia Hughes, Jeremy Dunahoe, David McMenemy, Chad Altman, and Sergio Baca.

    • (Show?)

      Christian justification for and direct religious involvement with genocide in the New World started almost immediately after Columbus and continued into living memory.

  • (Show?)

    As you consider this case of bigotry/political correctness/freedom of speech, I ask you to consider the current political ads that use China and the Chinese as the political boogeyman, much as the Muslims have been used politically to scare us. I've posted several here and here.

    Would you say they represent bigotry too?

    • (Show?)

      This is apples and oranges, David. The loss of middle class jobs to any country is bad. It is especially bad when the loss builds the power of an extremist totalitarian govt. that pursues racist policies of ethnic cleansing and torture against its own citizens. Trying to make a case that a criticism of our trade policy is bigotry is totally bogus and lame. Your attempt to characterize my criticism of the regime of the People's Republic of China and the U.S. trade policy, and the actions of multi-national corporations as racist or bigoted is laughable indeed.

  • (Show?)

    By the way, here is perhaps one of the most famous Muslims to live in Portland, in traditional "Muslim garb." http://ow.ly/1rf3jM

  • (Show?)

    Well, NPR should get ready for the onslaught of the right wing Republican hate machine. NPR has been appeasing them for too long, maybe they just better "man up" and face the fact that the GOP, Fox News, and their camp followers are just haters who love to use bigotry in the political culture wars.

  • (Show?)

    Jack, what Williams did was to say he agreed with O'Reilly, that it's OK to conflate 9/11 attackers with a random Muslim on a plane. He HAS acted on his fear; he's told a national radio audience as part of his job, that conflating them is rational, and "reality."

    He made his confession--then failed to repudiate it, as of course he should have. Because he was backing up O'Reilly on this.

  • (Show?)

    Muslims treat Jews and Gays just dandy. No bigotry.

  • (Show?)

    All you white guys, go to the MAX stop at Lloyd Center at 11:45 PM. When four heavy hitting black guys show up wearing saggers and blue hats, don't do a double take,don't have a moment of anxiety or fear given what has happened to other people. If you do you are a Bigot.

    • (Show?)

      The noteworthy cues in this instance you cite are not their skin color, ethnicity, or their religion. If four "heavy hitting" white skinhead gangsters show up on the Max, it will give me equal pause.

  • (Show?)

    I'm worried about those who wear flag pins on their lapels.

    War is just terrorism with a bigger budget.

  • (Show?)

    Why are all the cons in an uproar? Isn't this the "free market" at work?

    • (Show?)

      The free market at work was air america going dark. The very fact that a left winger like Juan is getting so much support from the right should tell you something for the respect we all have for the man. It's hard enough to go on TV and defend the liberal ideology but to do it on Fox against all of their well informed and well read sharpshooters, and then to do it in such a way as to gain the respect of the people who sometimes think what he is saying is nuts says alot about who he really is. I would suggest to anyone who thines he is a bigot to watch the entire clip on youtube ... that is everyone except Bill; dude your hopeless

      • (Show?)

        Calling Williams "a left winger" shows just how much Fox has your perspective. Or maybe it was always that off and you just watch Fox to make yourself feel OK.

        I mean, seriously? "all of their [Fox's] well informed and well read sharpshooters"?? Well informed? Well read? You're really digging yourself a hole here, Roger! Hopeless? I'll say.

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    NPR as an at-will employer certainly has the right to terminate Mr. Williams or anyone else for that matter. They should just be prepared for the predictible fall out.

    • (Show?)

      Kurt, apparently William's contract at NPR made clear he was not to identify himself as an NPR commentator on Fox, and he violated that.

      And his comments were ridiculous. Tell me, if you substituted the words "Catholic" or "Jewish" or "Christian" for "Muslim" do you think he'd still have his job?

      • (Show?)

        http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/5920144/nprs_nina_totenberg_jesse_helms_or.html

        this person still has her job at NPR ...you tell me.

        Everytime Juan was introduced on Fox his NPR position was mentioned so I doubt that he was forbidden from using it. . The joke is on NPR because they will lose their public funding over this and Juan just signed a 2 million dollar contract with Fox and now lots of people will be able to see him and hear from him all the time./

      • (Show?)

        Michael, you missed my point. As an at-will employer NPR could have fired Mr. Williams for wearing wingtips instead of tassle loafers. They just need to be prepared for the consequemces.

        And no, taken in context, inserting any other named minority should not have changed the decision made by NPR. It was theirs to make regardless.

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