Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Racism Isn't Just Acting Like John Derbyshire

This Thursday past, longtime National Review contributor John "Derb" Derbyshire published a column about how black people are stupid and dangerous and should be avoided except for, maybe, the smart ones. This wasn't on the National Review's website, but elsewhere, Taki's Magazine, which bills itself as "Cocktails, Countesses, and Mental Caviar." Here are some of those intellectual fish eggs on which to feast. Note that this is a sub-list of item ten of how to interact with black people:

(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.

After at first only tut-tutting the article, National Review editor Rich Lowry gave Derbyshire the boot. The reasons for doing so should by now be obvious, but it's worth reprinting the official explanation of their ways-parting:

Anyone who has read Derb in our pages knows he’s a deeply literate, funny, and incisive writer. I direct anyone who doubts his talents to his delightful first novel, “Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream,” or any one of his “Straggler” columns in the books section of NR. Derb is also maddening, outrageous, cranky, and provocative. His latest provocation, in a webzine, lurches from the politically incorrect to the nasty and indefensible. We never would have published it, but the main reason that people noticed it is that it is by a National Review writer. Derb is effectively using our name to get more oxygen for views with which we’d never associate ourselves otherwise. So there has to be a parting of the ways. Derb has long danced around the line on these issues, but this column is so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of resignation. It’s a free country, and Derb can write whatever he wants, wherever he wants. Just not in the pages of NR or NRO, or as someone associated with NR any longer.

The first thing that should be noted is that the nature of the column in question is not new. The Atlantic Wire has a good roundup of Derbyshire's long history of proud racism, but suffice it to say it's hard to imagine anyone else having a career as a opinion writer in a mainstream magazine after telling the University of Pennsylvania's Black Law Student Association, in person, that as African descendants they should collectively resign themselves to being dumber than whites. John Derbyshire often comes off as a terrible human being, but he is compellingly terrible, and both refreshingly and alarmingly upfront about his white supremacy.

So really, this whole fracas is just "Derb being Derb." And that's part of the problem, for "Derb" has some qualities, if not redeeming (there's no redeeming the unrepentant), then that at least help explain why he lasted as long as he did. His cranky pessimism (his most recent book was titled We Are Doomed) led him to butt heads with his erstwhile National Review colleagues ever so often, on issues like George W. Bush, creationism, and Terri Schiavo. This was amusing, if nothing else, but it also made him idiosyncratic and not at all a mere conservative apparatchik. He also has a way with words and on occasion put them to good use, such as his account of how he ended up playing an uncredited thug in a Bruce Lee movie.

Derbyshire's mixture of qualities both compelling and repelling, then, tends to trip up even (especially!) folks who we would like to think would know better about this sort of thing, but hate to see someone with otherwise admirable qualities as so morally deficient. I myself will admit to not saying anything when certain acquaintances have made ugly, racist remarks, for risk of jeopardizing the relationship. If we are to grant President Obama's understanding for his white grandmother, who feared black men passing her on the street, we can on some level feel that Lowry and company being slow to action regarding Derbyshire (whose bigotry is much, much worse) is understandable, if not acceptable.

The sad fact is most people don't grapple with these issues enough to have an informed opinion. To the casual observer, racism is a skinheaded, swastika-tattooed Edward Norton curb-stomping a black guy--not some crusty old Englishman who writes for a magazine the average American has never heard of. Thus the depressing number of people--if the comments on some of these pages are any indication--who echo Derbyshire's sentiments and claim they aren't being racist (though, notably, Derbyshire has before admitted his racism straight up). I don't wish to defend such ideas, but I do think it important see where the people who espouse them are coming from, that they may just possibly be corrected.

Regarding National Review, it's perhaps uncharitable to say Derbyshire got fired for being too obviously racist, but Lowry's statement that "Derb is effectively using our name to get more oxygen for views with which we’d never associate ourselves otherwise," even though Derbyshire said plenty of other nasty things under the National Review banner, suggests he was fired because of the shitstorm he brought to their doorstep rather than their understanding of why the shit was storming. It's not only Derbyshire's ridiculously offensive prescriptions that are the problem. They are the symptoms of the disease: a rotten dehumanization and objectification that is palpable in the very words he employs.

Consider the "intelligent and well-socialized blacks," which Derbyshire finds so remarkable as to require a category unto themselves. He encourages his hypothetical children to befriend these "IWSBs," because these ostensible friends are an "amulet" to guard against charges of racism, like a crucifix to ward away the devil. ISWBs are furthermore, "something of a luxury good, like antique furniture or corporate jets: boasted of by upper-class whites and wealthy organizations, coveted by the less prosperous." Black people were once literally white people's property, and today John Derbyshire argues they are at best a commodity good.

That black people aren't really even people to him, just "blacks," just objects and things that are without agency or feelings or lives outside of a general incompetence and hostility to whites, is inherent in the very premise of the article. The piece is a tongue-in-cheek response to "The Talk" that black parents give their (male) children about interacting with trigger-happy and negligent law enforcement and the culture at large. This is a horrific and persistent issue, with the Sanford Police Department's botched handling of the death of Trayvon Martin (and Geraldo Rivera's subsequent declaration that Martin brought it on himself for wearing a hoodie) being only its latest and most visible iteration. Derbyshire's response is to treat the death of innocent youth as a joke and write a "Nonblack Version" of The Talk that proves its point by getting the issue precisely backward; in response to a talk about how to maneuver in a world of prejudice, we have a "talk" on how to perpetuate prejudice.

This mindset, viewing vast swaths of people as cultural grindstones and other mere tools, goes beyond this single episode. Recently leaked documents from the National Organization for Marriage revealed a strategy to court conservative blacks and Latinos--the latter of which must have their assimilation into the culture interrupted for fear of losing their conservatism--purely as a means of attacking gays. Nor is this at all restricted to conservatives. Bill Maher's recent declaration that he can't be a racist because he gave a million dollars to Barack Obama (as a follow-up to an Alexandra Pelosi video that 'documented' dumb, poor, liberal New York City blacks in response to criticisms of her footage of dumb, poor, conservative Mississippi whites), displays a similar reductiveness.

The whole episode, and the Martin case more broadly, is a depressing reminder of our discourse's gross immaturity. Racism is not demonology. It is, at heart, like a great many problems, a failure of empathy. To miss this crucial point and focus on the obviously outrageous is, pardon the term, so much thinking in black-and-white.

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