Editorial | On the usefulness of racist morons
Editor's Desk, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, April 7, 2012 11:43 - 27 Comments
By Hicham Yezza
John Derbyshire’s article in Taki’s Magazine
Over the years, I’ve read more than my fair share of cretinous, offensive, half-baked, frivolous and surreal articles. However, I have never found myself, upon finishing a piece, discovering that my lower jaw had literally dropped open.
“The Talk: Nonblack Version” is an article by John Derbyshire, a British-born, US-based conservative author and journalist who mostly writes for National Review, the de-facto house organ of American conservatism. The piece in question was featured in another publication, the aptly named Taki’s magazine.
First, some background: on February 26, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old African-American teenager, was shot dead by a neighbourhood watch vigilante named George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman, who was carrying a gun, claimed he was attacked by Martin – an unarmed man half his size – and had acted in self defence. This, according to a peculiar Florida law called ‘Stand Your Ground’, entitled him to be released without being charged or even questioned in depth (as a prime suspect would normally be).
Within days, increasingly compelling evidence started to emerge showing the version of events advanced by Zimmerman and the Florida police was mostly a pile of fabrications. It became apparent that Martin was deemed suspicious, then was followed and shot dead, simply for being black. The wave of public anger and rage in response soon grew wider and more intense, compounded by the perceived indifference, even contempt, by the authorities towards the victim, his family and community.
As the media coverage turned to the role of institutional racism in causing this tragedy and many others, many African-American parents voiced their concerns. They revealed how they often found themselves having to sit down with their children to instruct them on what to say or do in situations where they had to deal with white authority figures, such as police officers. The aim of “the talk”, they explained, was to keep their children safe, to protect them from being harmed or killed.
Interestingly, Derbyshire decided the real issue wasn’t the context and reasons that would cause a parent to feel such a measure was needed in the first place, but “the talk” itself. How dare black parents tell their kids what to do when confronted with white people with guns?
Outraged, Derbyshire hit back, or thought he did. “There is a talk that nonblack Americans have with their kids, too.” he warns at the outset before proceeding to deliver his own “Nonblack Version”, addressed to his white kids, on how to deal with black people.
After a few tentative throat-clearing banalities such as “among your fellow citizens are forty million who identify as black”, he warms to his theme:
“A small cohort of blacks—in my experience, around five percent—is ferociously hostile to whites and will go to great lengths to inconvenience or harm us. A much larger cohort of blacks—around half—will go along passively if the five percent take leadership in some event. They will do this out of racial solidarity, the natural willingness of most human beings to be led, and a vague feeling that whites have it coming.”
Soon enough, Derbyshire joyfully hits his stride and, once he got going, clearly found it very hard to know when – or how – to stop. The result is one of the most unhinged and repugnant displays of straightforward bigotry ever committed to print by a nominally serious journalist in a nominally serious publication.
Sentence after poisonous sentence, an awkward realisation starts to coalesce that we’re watching a man drown into a sea of long-held, long-repressed prejudices. It’s not long before we find him urging his children to “avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally”, to “stay out of heavily black neighborhoods”, “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”. “Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks”, “If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.” “Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress”.
And just when you think he’s bound to snap out of his trance, he makes a mighty leap overboard “the mean intelligence of blacks is much lower than for whites.” “In a pure meritocracy there would be very low proportions of blacks in cognitively demanding jobs.” “You should consciously seek opportunities to make friends with intelligent and well-socialized blacks” because “you will gain an amulet against potentially career-destroying accusations of prejudice.”
Throughout, Derbyshire can’t help betraying how very clever he thinks his piece is. You can almost picture him in the darkness of his attic, typing away whilst muttering “This will give ‘em a taste of their own medicine. That’ll show ‘em”. Unfortunately for him, he’s nothing near as clever as he thinks he is. Far from the unanswerable piece of rhetorical machinery he imagined himself building, he ended up overreaching and unmasking himself in the process.
Calculating he would get away with his vituperations by cloaking them in pseudo-objective, scientific, neutral language, he was alas unable to stop himself from littering the piece with giveaways such as that all-too-telling “swamped”. In other words, he had shown himself to be a moron. A conclusion his fellow-travellers on the american right seem to be reaching en masse.
It’s important to note that the most telling thing about this astonishing episode is not so much the piece itself, however disturbing, but the fact that Derbyshire felt emboldened and confident enough not only to sit down and write it but to send it out into the world for everyone to read. This clearly was a man who felt he was delivering home truths to an understanding, receptive, even grateful audience.
Of course, Derbyshire’s confidence that he was acting within the accepted norm, however misplaced, is not that surprising when you consider not only the legacy and ongoing reality of institutional racial prejudice in the US but also the nasty wave of Trayvon-bashing that has been sweeping the conservative media since the killing. From the outset, the American right decided to go on the offensive in a determined attempt to turn the murder of an unarmed black teenager into an indictment of the African-American community itself.
However, many of Derbyshire’s colleagues and allies, no-doubt alarmed at the horrific embarrassment of having one of their own spill the beans in such a disastrously public fashion, are queueing up to collectively throw him under the bus. In a curt web posting, Rich Lowry, his editor at NR, called Derbyshire’s views “appalling”, saying they were shared by “no one at National Review”. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehesi Coates explicitly labelled Derbyshire a “racist”, while Forbes magazine called for him to be sacked. Jonah Goldberg, another NR colleague, denounced the piece as “fundamentally indefensible and offensive”.
It remains to be seen what the fallout from Derbyshire’s hubris-fuelled candour will be, both for himself and, more crucially, for the wider issues at stake. Calls have already been made for National Review to fire him, and the magazine’s eventual response*, whatever it may be, will certainly not be the final word on the story.
Still, in a climate where we are routinely told, often in impatient, eye-rolling tones, that the battle against racism has already been won, moments like Derbyshire’s outburst are salutary reminders that, however far we might have come, there’s still a long way to go.
John Derbyshire, you racist moron, we salute you.
* Update: On April 7, 2012 National Review announced it had sacked John Derbyshire. In a statement on its website, editor Rich Lowry wrote “[Derbyshire’s] 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. [Derbyshire] 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.”