Bill O'Reilly's Ugly Carnival

Cheap jokes about Chinatown from the Fox anchor and his sidekick might end up being pretty costly, in the end.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

What’s more specifically racist than sending a reporter to Chinatown to make ostensibly “Chinese” jokes involving taekwondo (a Korean martial art), nunchucks (an Okinawan weapon), stolen watches, dragons,  and foot massages? Probably nothing. There are so many cringe-worthy moments in Jesse Watters’s Chinatown video for Fox’s O’Reilly Factor that it’s almost tedious to enumerate them. But possibly the worst are the ones featuring elderly Asians who stand silently on camera while Watters pokes fun of them and their apparent inability to speak English. Who punches that far down for a laugh? Fox, apparently.

After the segment aired, O’Reilly and Watters sat on set, chuckling at what O’Reilly termed the “gentle fun” in Watters’s video, though O’Reilly cautioned that he suspected, “we’re going to get letters—inevitable,” betraying an inkling that what had just aired might offend some people out there, somewhere.

What was interesting about the moment was that it was not the Republican presidential candidate in the hot seat for incendiary and racially-loaded commentary, but—as my colleague James Fallows pointed out—his party’s preferred network. This is not a coincidence. Trump’s successful candidacy has opened the floodgates to this kind of sewage: bigotry disguised as entertainment sociology.

O’Reilly’s contention that the channel would “inevitably” get angry letters was also a stratagem straight out of the Trump playbook: a pre-emptive strike against the faceless, politically-correct scolds who were presumably waiting to pounce and censor. By Wednesday evening, amid widespread incredulity at the tastelessness of the segment, Watters tweeted:

My man-on-the-street interviews are meant to be taken as tongue-in-cheek and I regret if anyone found offense.

“Regret[ting] if anyone has found offense” is about as unapologetic as an apology can get, given that it manages to both pity and mock those thin-skinned enough to find offense in Watters’s merry antics. Basically, this was a riff on O’Reilly’s earlier suggestion that Yeah, yeah, some people are gonna have a problem with this (but they shouldn’t).

In some ways, the broad distaste for Watters’s video has been a clarifying event. Asians, I have argued before, occupy a particular subset in the American cultural matrix: It is more acceptable to make fun of them than it is other minorities, because they are seen (falsely) to be broadly economically successful and independent, and therefore perhaps more “safely” caricatured. To be clear, this racism-as-a-lark is peddled not only by the right but by the left, too. Remember that Chris Rock earlier this year brought the house down at the Academy Awards—a room filled with cultural elites who hold a quasi-monopoly on Democratic fundraisers—by making fun of Asian child laborers and Asian math whizzes … on a night celebrating racial diversity.

Having said that, the atmosphere on the right, thanks to videos like Watters’s, thanks to Trump’s comments on Muslims and their religion, Mexicans and their criminal records, African Americans and the hell they live in, is toxic enough to suggest minorities are unwelcome there (and don’t particularly want to be there).

The polling would seem to prove this.

In late August, Trump’s favorable rating among African Americans was at zero. Earlier this week, a poll of likely Hispanic voters in Florida—a state Trump must win if he is to have any path to the presidency—found him 24 points behind Clinton. And on Wednesday, the morning after Watters’s segment on Chinatown, NBC revealed that Clinton leads Trump among Asian voters by a whopping 41 points. It is an embarrassing chasm of a divide—but it is also not all that surprising. Turns out, when you malign minorities over and over again, they don’t support you.

For Asians who will not vote in this year’s U.S. presidential election—which is to say, most Asians—to watch what has transpired on the American stage of late, this obscene carnival of cultural denigration must be somewhat confounding, if not deeply concerning.

The Chinese, about whom Jesse Watters and Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump are apparently very curious (and also very confused), send their children here to learn, and in large numbers. According to the Institute of International Education, Chinese students accounted for nearly one-third of all overseas pupils and one-third of international-student growth at U.S. colleges and universities in 2015. So far, it seems, American educational institutions are still the place to be. But if you were a Chinese parent or a Chinese student watching Jesse Waters and Bill O’Reilly on Tuesday night, you’d have to wonder whether America is the place to stay.