The primary concern Wednesday in the bustling dining room of Sylvia’s Queen of Soul Food in Harlem was about the heaping plates of Southern fried chicken and grits, baked ham and sweet potato pie.
When diners peeled themselves away from their plates to consider talk show host Bill O’Reilly’s disparaging and seemingly racist remarks about their favorite spot in Harlem, their reactions were a mixture of disdain and bemusement.
O’Reilly, host of a popular talk show on Fox News, told a radio audience on his syndicated show last week that he “couldn’t get over the fact” that there was “no difference” between Sylvia’s and any other New York restaurant.
“I mean it’s exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks, primarily black patronship,” O’Reilly said. Later he added, “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s screaming, ‘M-Fer, I want more iced tea.’
Todd Murray, 43, of the Bronx was hardly surprised.
“It’s typical Bill O’Reilly. It’s a shame, but there are people still walking around with those kinds of attitudes. Everybody talks about how far we’ve come but we still have a long ways to go.”
Treness Woods-Black, the third-generation owner of Sylvia’s, on Lenox and 126th Street, said she found O’Reilly’s comments deeply offensive.
“Sylvia’s is a black-owned establishment that serves great food and is a neighborhood institution,” she said. “If Bill O’Reilly didn’t know that before, he knows it now.”
O’Reilly’s comments were posted online by the watchdog group Media Matters for America, but the host of the “O’Reilly Factor” protested that they were taken out of context.
“Media Matters has labeled me anti-black, anti-Hispanic, homophobic, and anti-Semetic,” he said on his show Tuesday night. “I’m sure I’ll be a member of the Manson family shortly.”
Paul Waldman, a senior fellow at Media Matters, told the “Today” show: “If Bill O’Reilly got caught robbing a bank he would say it was taken out of context.”
When making the controversial comments, O’Reilly was referring to a trip earlier this month to Sylvia’s with the Rev. Al Sharpton to thank the civil rights leader for appearing on his television show.
On the same broadcast in which he made the controversial comments about the famed Harlem eatery, he also said, “I think black Americans are starting to think more and more for themselves. They are getting away from the Sharptons and the [the Rev. Jesse] Jacksons.”
Sharpton was a guest on the TV show Wednesday night and said that he had not heard O’Reilly’s comments, but added, “You and I have gone to dinner before in Harlem and I never heard you say anything offensive.”
The real question, however, is whether or not O’Reilly will overcome the backlash that has followed or if he will fall by the same wayside as Don Imus and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, other broadcasters who made disparaging comments on air and ultimately had to resign.
“It’s hard to say,” said Larry Smith, the president for the Institute of Crisis Management, a consulting firm. “Certainly, if a presidential candidate or a CEO said something like this they would be beyond burnt toast.”
Smith expressed dismay when told that O’Reilly had Sharpton on the show Wednesday night and was scheduled to have Jackson on tonight.
“It sounds like they are trying to milk it for ratings,” he said. “It makes it hard to feel sorry for him.”
At Sylvia’s though, the focus was still on the food.
“It’s an expected comment from someone like that,” shrugged Cortney Daniels, 27, on her way in for a plate of black-eyed peas. “You can’t change the way people think.”
She had moved to the city eight days ago, and this was already her second trip to Sylvia’s.