Bill O’Reilly and the “Contact Hypothesis”

New Yorkers know that if you want good soul food, the direction you head is uptown, to Harlem, and the destination-of-choice is Sylvia’s. Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News commentator (and former “Hard Copy” anchor and easy target for all sorts of critics), dined at Sylvia’s recently with Al Sharpton, and afterward opened his mouth to share this fatuous remark (quoting her from NY Daily News):


“I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. It was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks [and has a] primarily black patronship,” O’Reilly said. “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-Fer, I want more iced tea!'”

“It was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people [who] were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn’t any kind of craziness at all,” he said.

The racism in this statement seems fairly obvious, but the objectionable bit of course is that he was surprised by “sameness” between Black and white restaurant-goers (as if,…well, you get the idea).

O’Reilly is such an objectionable figure on any number of levels (and there are lots of others lining up to take shots at him), and there’s no point in my piling on to the ad hominem attacks against this guy. The reason I raise this issue here is to draw attention to this notion of the “contact hypothesis” which has a long tradition in social science research. First posed by Gordon Allport in the 1950s, the notion is that ” the more one gets to know personally individual members of a minority group, the less likely one is to be prejudiced against that minority group” (Ray, 1983).

This hypothesis suggests that “not knowing” or “lack of contact” is at the root of intolerance, prejudice, and racism (all slightly different concepts). The idea that “contact” will increase tolerance is what is at the root of all those corporate diversity trainings. I sat through one of those once in which the Black people sat on one side of the room, the white people on the other side of the room, and we — in our racially segregated groups — were to come up with a list of “things I like about being my race.” Perhaps I’ve been studying white supremacists too long, but when someone says,”let’s all the white people put our chairs together and talk about what’s good about being white,” I tend to get a tad suspicious. Such an exercise is predicated on a belief in a kind of pluralism in which all other things are equal and we can all come to a table situated within a racially just society, which is as yet, an unrealized dream.

The fact is, the social science research on “the contact hypothesis” is voluminous and mixed. Some studies show limited support for “more positive racial attitudes” among whites following interracial contact. For example, in a 1993 Social Forces article, Sigelman and Welch report on results of a nationwide telephone survey of 231 African Americans and 1,315 whites that demonstrated some support for the “contact hypothesis”: in certain instances, interracial friendship or neighborhood contacts were associated with more positive racial attitudes, particularly among whites. In a different study, published in a 2001 Social Science Quarterly article, Hanssen finds no support for the “contact hypothesis” in an examination of a natural experiment among white baseball players who have more contact with African Americans as teammates.

There are a number of problems with this line of research, summarized best I think by Dana Bramel in her in-depth discussion of the field in “The Strange Career of the Contact Hypothesis.” She writes that such studies are “plagued by hidden and untested assumptions about a homogeneous American culture” ( 2004, p.63).

What the Bill O’Reilly’s of the world continue to illustrate for us is that we need much more than “contact” to undo systemic racism.