Bill O’Reilly, growing up in Levittown, and experiences with race

While doing some research on suburbs and race, I ran into a 2014 exchange between Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly about the latter growing up in Levittown, New York:

Of Levittown, Stewart riffed, “It gave you a nice stable, a cheap home — there was no down payments. It was this incredible opportunity … Those houses were subsidized … It wasn’t lavish,” said Stewart.

The back-and-forth that followed is essential to understanding the Fox News celebrity:

O’Reilly: No, they weren’t subsidized. They were sold to GIs, and the GIs got a mortgage they could afford.

Stewart: Did that upbringing leave a mark on you even today?

O’Reilly: Of course. Every upbringing leaves a mark on people.

Stewart: Could black people live in Levittown?

O’Reilly: Not in that time — they could not.

Stewart: So that, my friend, is what we call in the business “white privilege.”

O’Reilly: That was in 1950, all right.

Stewart: Were there black people living there in 1960?

O’Reilly: In Levittown? I don’t know.

Stewart: There weren’t.

O’Reilly: How do you know?

Stewart: Because I read up on it.

O’Reilly: Oh, you read up! You don’t know that. I can find somebody…Why would you want to live there? It’s a nice place, but it’s not a place like … Bel Air, come on!

The paradigmatic suburb of the post-World War II era did not allow blacks in the community for years. This influenced thousands of residents in Levittown, thousands of black residents who instead had to move to other suburbs, and many more who lived in similar suburbs across the country that had similar exclusions.

While the conversation above is about Bill O’Reilly, it hints at a broader connection that many would like to make: growing up in a more diverse community in terms of race and ethnicity (less is made here of social class) will lead to more tolerance and acceptance of difference for those same adults. Because O’Reilly lived in a white community at a critical age, he had fewer opportunities to engage people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and develop relationships and understanding.

Even if the stereotype of the white and wealthy suburb continues (and for some good reasons), suburbs today are less homogeneous and this can lead to a variety of experiences.