The Derbyshire Kerfuffle
John Derbyshire set off a firestorm this past weekend when he put up this article called The Talk: Nonblack Version. This was a response, of sorts, to a column published in the Orlando Sentinel in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin.
Derbyshire’s column was swiftly condemned by commentators on all sides of the political spectrum. By Saturday night National Review had severed its ties to Derbyshire even though his column had appeared on another site.
What did Derbyshire do this time to draw such harsh condemnation? Derbyshire’s column utilized the conceit of giving his child a talk about race relations and what to do when confronting unknown black people. Though commenters objected to nearly all of what Derbyshire wrote, this was the most damning section:
(10) Thus, while always attentive to the particular qualities of individuals, on the many occasions where you have nothing to guide you but knowledge of those mean differences, use statistical common sense:
(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.
(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.
(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).
(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.
(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.
(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.
(10g) Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.
(10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.
(10i) If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.
I wouldn’t have commented on this but for the reaction to it. In some ways that is more interesting than the article itself, which is frankly just dumb (more on that in a minute). Just as quickly as a majority of both right and left writers condemned Derbyshire, there was the counter-reaction which suggested that this was not a firing offense, and perhaps even contained more truth than people were comfortable admitting.
Let me first address the substance of the commentary. There’s a saying that the plural of anecdote is not data, and it doesn’t look like Derb has heeded that here. Some of his defenders seem fooled by the number of links, as though copious citation is in and of itself proof of correctness. I certainly appreciate people showing their work, but all Derbyshire did was take truly horrendous incidents and use them as justification for making broad generalities. It’s terrible that a white person was assaulted for nothing more than being guilty of being white in a black neighborhood (and, incidentally, the lack of reporting on such incidents only makes the story more infuriating), but does one glean from such an incident that is always imprudent for non-blacks to wander in black communities? Because if we’re using anecdotes as proof, my rather expansive history of strolling through black communities unmolested would counter this theory.
Some of these points are truly head scratching. Why should we scrutinize black politicians more heavily than non-black politicians? Shouldn’t we deeply investigate all politicians? And while there might be something to the point about municipalities run by black politicians, is that ideological or racial? Washington DC itself provides examples of relatively competent black leadership (Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty) and corrupt leadership (Marion Barry and Vincent Gray). I for one would prefer the leadership of Fenty to, say, William Daly.
There’s more to the article, including a discussion of the comparatively low IQ scores of blacks as compared to whites. Again, it’s a scientifically accurate fact, but so what? And what does it have to do with the (admittedly dumb) Orlando Sentinel article? Derbyshire’s article fails as satire because it doesn’t really reflect the thing being satirized, and it fails on the substance because Derbyshire chooses to draw extreme conclusions based on rather scanty evidence.
But is it a fireable offense?
First of all, let’s make clear that the fact that Derbyshire wrote this for Taki Magazine is beside the point. If I write a blog post that condemns the Catholic Church on my personal blog, the other editors of the American Catholic would be right to disinvite me from further participation on this blog.
As I said, there was a counter-reaction to Derbyshire’s banishment expressed throughout the world of social media and on the comments at NRO. Admittedly I joined the fun in expressing my angst at National Review’s decision, though not because I thought Derbyshire’s column had much merit, but because he has written worse things in the past. In fact I specifically alluded to this Corner posting from 2008. The entire post is just dripping with complete hostility to religious people. It is far and away more offensive than his latest missive, and far shorter on any sort of substantive reasoning.
On the other hand, Jonah Goldberg had a fair response to that point. Unfortunately he wrote it in his G-file and as such it is not available for quoting. The long and short of his argument is that this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It may not have been the worst thing he’s ever written, but it’s just the latest in an accumulation of fairly outrageous writing. Still, this is almost like firing someone for being ten minutes late when they had been on probation for poor performance. Also, it is telling that Derbyshire is let go for writing a racially insensitive article while he was permitted to keep his job despite his manifest religious bigotry.
I have a hard time defending Derbyshire because I honestly think he should have been fired long before this. But we really have to have some room for discourse on thorny issues. I’m not entirely sure that Derbyshire’s comments are so beyond the pale that his firing was justified, but I’m also not convinced that National Review is engaging in awful cowardice because of this decision.
One of the problems with political correctness is that we sometimes tend to celebrate non-politically correct statements purely for being non-politically correct. W. James Antle has a pair of good posts explaining the faults with this approach. Here is the first column.
Enough has been written about the column that ended Derbyshire’s association with National Review. There is, however, a bigger picture here. There are certain ideas about race that are popular among liberals — that cases like Trayvon Martin’s aren’t isolated tragedies but routine occurrences in racist America; concerns about crime, especially black crime, are necessarily racist; white racism explains the overwhelming majority of black social problems; voter ID laws aren’t much different from poll taxes and Bull Connor; the racial attitudes of the Jim Crow South remain commonplace among white Americans — that are to many Americans obvious nonsense.
A small but growing number of people on the right seem to be embracing the idea that if these liberal observations are false, then the exact opposite of them must be true: interracial harmony is effectively impossible; affirmative action harms whites in exactly the same way Jim Crow harmed blacks; the era that gave rise to the civil rights movement wasn’t that bad; we are all at imminent risk of being attacked by predominantly black flash mobs; white racism doesn’t exist (proponents of this last bit seem divided on the question of whether it should exist). Needless to say, these views are also obvious nonsense.
The left’s tolerance and occasional celebration of racial hucksterism has produced an equal and opposite reaction on the right. It has made some more mainstream conservatives automatically dismissive of claims of anti-black racism. On the more extreme end, it has produced an audience for white nationalism. These white nationalists — the people I called “white nats” in the comments thread of yesterday’s post — start by rejecting liberal caricatures and asking plausible questions: Would you rather live in Haiti or Switzerland? In [insert dangerous inner city neighborhood here] or [insert prosperous white suburb here]? Would you rather be governed by Marion Barry or George Washington? Once you have provided the obvious answers, they head further down the road.
The overwhelming majority of people can hold two thoughts in their head simultaneously: they can avoid a dangerous neighborhood at night without it affecting their treatment of their black friends, neighbors, coworkers, and strangers they meet (yes, white people do have black friends, neighbors, and coworkers). Even John Derbyshire acknowledges as much in thecolumn that led to his separation from National Review (the Atlantic helpfully lists some racists who criticized Derbyshire for this acknowledgement; Jason Lee Steorts makes the case that the column goes on to violate this principle).
In essence, the extreme left and right paint an unrealistic picture of American race relations as being something akin to the Hutu and the Tutsi. Few people share either group’s worldview entirely, but the number of Americans they influence is larger. And while many commenters were disappointed I didn’t weigh in more directly on Derbyshire himself, I thought this undercurrent — which the controversy surrounding his column for Taki’s brought to light — more interesting than being the thousandth person to denounce Derbyshire’s piece or trying to defend views that don’t resemble my own.
And that about sums up how I feel about this entire mess.