Editorial | On the usefulness of racist morons

Ceasefire editor-in-chief Hicham Yezza reflects on John Derbyshire's "The Talk: Nonblack Version", one of the most unhinged and repugnant displays of racist bigotry in the history of American journalism.

Editor's Desk, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, April 7, 2012 11:43 - 27 Comments

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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.

Until now.

“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.”

Hicham Yezza

Hicham Yezza is editor-in-chief of Ceasefire. He can be contacted at: editor[at]ceasefiremagazine[dot]co[dot]uk

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Melba Narberth
Apr 7, 2012 12:42

Poison! Hate! Evil! Witches! Moral outrage! Mob outrage! He spoke the unspeakable! Burn him!

Try refuting a single point in this brilliant mathematician’s article.

adam
Apr 7, 2012 13:42

I think the collective IQ one has been refuted Melba. Interestingly, by mathematicians.

PW
Apr 7, 2012 13:44

“”Martin – an unarmed man half his size”

Half his size? Martin was at least taller than Zimmerman and certainly younger and probably stronger as well. Maybe he was half his weight, but I doubt that as well.

“Increasingly compelling evidence started to emerge showing the version of events advanced by Zimmerman and the Florida police was mostly a pile of fabrications”

I haven’t seen much of that at all. I’ve heard of a witness that said Martin attacked Zimmerman. I listened to another who believed she saw Zimmerman on top of Martin and Zimmerman not helping Martin after the shooting. I saw an image of a substantial gash on Zimmerman’s head and also a pretty convincing audio tape on CNN that refutes that Zimmerman used a racial slur when he called 911.

But fill me in with what is so “compelling”. But it’s probably hard to make a convincing case given that you started your article with a blatant distortion.

Raj K
Apr 7, 2012 13:57

PW – Being twice someone’s weight, and holding a gun is probably enough.

I suppose the compelling evidence is mainly that doctors have confirmed that Zimmerman has no injuries to his nose, and are unable to confirm an injury to the back of his head. But what would a doctor know? I’m sure the fuzzy CCTV footage you saw on TV is far more medically accurate.

PW
Apr 7, 2012 14:24

Which doctors are those? Zimmerman hasn’t released any medical records and has probably been wisely asked not to do by the investigators and his lawyers. It seems some people either want Zimmerman railroaded or exonerated regardless of the facts. Perceiving individual cases through this type of lens seems to be a trait of most but its not a trait that I possess. For all I know Zimmerman was a racist out for blood or was a viciously attacked by Martin and acted in self-defense. My political leanings or views on race relations or those of anyone else have nothing to do with happened on that night in this individual instance.

Raj K
Apr 7, 2012 14:50

The doctors who reported to ABC news, for what its worth.

I don’t think people necessarily want Zimmerman railroaded, as much as they would like to see him stand trial, in the same way any other person who shot a 17 year old in the street would.

buzz
Apr 7, 2012 14:57

Maybe it was legit to shoot an unarmed man, but surely that should be determined by a court? I don’t quite believe that we are in a political situation where the right to trial can be questioned.

Nathan
Apr 7, 2012 15:05

PW – at what size is a person a legitimate target to be shot?

Daniel Williams
Apr 7, 2012 17:10

Nice article. I like how you didn’t bother to refute anything that Derbyshire actually wrote, but instead just skipped straight to the name-calling.

WB
Apr 7, 2012 17:18

I don’t think the writer wanted to give Derbyshire’s racist diatribe (which included a 19th Century style hierarchy of the races) with the respect of addressing directly his absurd points.

EBL
Apr 7, 2012 17:57

http://evilbloggerlady.blogspot.com/2012/04/john-derbyshires-talk.html I do not agree with John Derbyshire’s article. But we can disagree with it, without engaging in faux outrage over it. A little introspection is in order, since what Derbyshire said are things I have heard many people (of all races, sexual orientations, classes, and political persuasions) say privately. That does not make it right. But I would caution the best way to disagree is with facts, rational arguments or humor.

And for those on the left who will be quick to paint all conservatives and Republicans as racists: Pause a second and consider that you are acting in a prejudicial way. Then go read Matthew 7:1-5. Even if you are not a Christian, the advice there works for anyone and will do you some good.

Hicham Yezza
Apr 7, 2012 19:15

@Melba: Yes, of course. As I point out in the piece, it is Derbyshire himself who has engaged in “Moral Outrage”. As to “refuti[ng] a single point”, I’m sure when you go to a public space and find hundreds of white people, the brilliant mathematical term that comes to mind is “swamped by white people”.

@PW I agree that size is more imprecise than weight but I think it’s correct enough, Martin was, by most reasonable accounts, not physically intimidating. Unless, of course, you consider his colour to be an intimidating factor in itself, which is sort of the problem.

@Daniel Williams I assume you’re referring to my use of “moron”, which I borrowed from Derbyshire himself as I thought it was the best technical term to describe someone who tries to write a clever piece but ends up unmasking his bigotry in the process. If that isn’t moronic I’m not sure what is. Maybe I should have described him as “cognitively challenged”.

@EBL I agree with you on the need for “facts, rational arguments or humor.” And, if I say so myself, there’s plenty of all three in my article.

foucault-friend
Apr 7, 2012 21:19

It seems to me that there is little point in arguing with such a piece since, objectively viewed, this article does not constitute an argument, but a series of unfounded, tired, dull assertions by an intellectual amoeba (my apologies to higher forms of pond life).

What is of considerable interest, however, is an analysis of this piece as a social document. It would be naive to suggest that such pronouncements do not resonate with tacit, unvoiced attitudes of many people, not only in the US, but also in the United Kingdom (where we must substitute colonialism and Empire for slavery). Oppressive and colonial attitudes do not end with the return of colonies and the end of Empire. Wacquant makes a similar point about slavery (one of the US’s ‘peculiar institutions’ per Wacq). Such discourses still suffuse society and inform the way in which minority ethnic populations are treated, how power and discretion are used against them, and how social and economic capital is asymmetrically distributed. Analytically, all that J. Derbyshire has done is make explicit what is implicit in the culture.

ashok
Apr 7, 2012 21:58

isnt this an anarchist mag? where did all the crazyass racist commenters come from?

Andy
Apr 7, 2012 23:01

@ashok they’ve been turning up on every article about Trayvon ever since this first broke. Stormfriends or similar astroturfing methinks. Though AFAIK Ceasefire has never had an official “ism”.

This whole episode with Derbyshire is a little perplexing – I’m sure it’s a revelation to some racist or race-blind white people that “the talk” exists, but I really don’t see where the grievance is coming from – they certainly wouldn’t want black people acting like they would otherwise. I’ve seen other places where “the talk” or “the code” is used as a kind of victim-blaming against Trayvon Martin – he didn’t act as “the talk” suggests around a white authority-figure, therefore he got shot. The racists should really be grateful for “the talk”, since, while it’s quite understandable in terms of keeping people safe, it also serves to reinforce deference in a supremacist society. I’ve heard of a similar code among women about how to minimise the risk of getting raped, and it gets similarly tied-up with victim-blaming and self-restricting one’s freedom. The closest equivalent for unmarked white males would probably be “avoiding being a victim of crime” and, surprise surprise, never gets used for victim blaming (“an old guy out drunk at 11pm is asking to be mugged”)… I wonder why.

Ben M.
Apr 8, 2012 2:53

Zimmermean should go to trial. But I have to confront these falsehoods: “an unarmed man half his size – and had acted in self defence.”
Martin weighed 150, according to the coroner’s report. Zimmerman weighed 170 at the time of the incident. And Martin was 6’1″. (May he RIP and get justice.)

“This, according to a peculiar Florida law called ‘Stand Your Ground’, entitled him to be released without being charged or even questioned.” No, that is patently false. As ABC and CNN have shown he was taken in handcuffs to the station to be questioned on the night of the killing. He was released, but to suggest he was not questioned is a lie. How would the police report have been filed with so many statements from Zimmerman if he wasn’t questioned? You’re wrong and you should correct it.

I hope Zimmerman is put on trial.

Hicham Yezza
Apr 8, 2012 3:04

@Ben M – You’re right about the questioning, I should have been more precise. My main point was about the absence of a charge, which is correct, and that the police didn’t chase the case properly, including collecting evidence (Zimmerman’s clothes were not taken for testing etc). We will amend the reference accordingly.

As to the weight/size, please see my response above to PW.

Coyote
Apr 8, 2012 4:07

Lol, I bet HIcham Yezza has never had his head stomped into concrete like I have by black people or had to live around any real sizable concentration of them. When you live in a lot of places in america where cars are slowly prowling around your neighborhood bumping bass, your stuff is vandalized and broken into, and you or someone you love is “jumped” or worse, you start to feel sympathetic to Derbyshires points in his piece. It’s hard not to imagine people like Yezza living in some hip urban microcosm where the black people do spoken word and are always clean cut and friendly while never leaving or experiencing what the rest of us have to deal with on a regular basis, surviving and watching our backs from a real everyday threat to our safety.

Hicham Yezza
Apr 8, 2012 4:15

@Coyote “Lol” indeed.

Coyote
Apr 9, 2012 5:59

Typical that you would find a real present threat to my (and a good many others) well being laughable. It’s not a paranoid delusion when you’ve been personally assaulted and beaten on more than one occasion by people who coincidentally have the same color of skin. These also happen to be the very same people who not only personally but culturally chastise you as being genetically predisposed to a burning psychological racial disorder while being wholly consumed by racial motivations and hatred themselves. It’s also typical that not only do you have any real rebuttal to any of the statistics in Derbyshires piece but nothing of substance to say to what I wrote. Maybe you should step back from your misguided self righteous diatribes and take a good long and unbiased look into why people might start having a lot of major misgivings about modern black culture.

Hicham Yezza
Apr 9, 2012 6:36

@Coyote. As I made clear, the “Lol’ is yours not mine. You say you were “personally assaulted and beaten on more than one occasion by people who coincidentally have the same color of skin.”? What was your conclusion?

foucault-friend
Apr 9, 2012 9:43

@Hicham/ @ashok. I suspect I must apologise if I was not sufficiently clear: the utterly objectionable article I was referring to was not HY’s but Derbyshire’s.

@Coyote. You complain about a lack of statistical refutation. Any fair-minded inquirer, desirous of establishing the actual picture, will swiftly discover how flawed Derbyshire’s article is. Very briefly, however, three data points:

> in the last 20 years in the US, the proportion of Black people imprisoned has almost doubled while the actual amount of crime committed by this group has gone down.
> in the UK Black people constitute 3% of the population and 25% of the people killed in police custody.
> self-report surveys in the UK have consistently demonstrated empirically over the last 15 years that the actual level of crime reported among ethnic groups is very similar, but the enforcement of the law is highly skewed.

Black people break the law; White people break the law. The levels of incarceration of these respective populations is not simply a mirror reflecting actual underlying offending, but a social construct that reveals how power is exercised in society. Derbyshire’s article speaks volumes not about ‘modern black culture’ but about racist representations of it that pass for some objectively validated ‘truth’. It exacerbates the kind of hysteria and racial paranoia we read on this page. It is odious and deeply damaging socially.

Hicham Yezza
Apr 10, 2012 5:37

@foucault-friend: Yes, I did figure that out, but thanks for confirming! :)

happysmiles
Apr 11, 2012 9:49

ceasefire in it’s prime… academic tit for tat… where’s zizek?

bob
Apr 13, 2012 3:25

Most of the comments here compound the entire point of this article: that racist bigotry is alive and killing people both literally and morally. Well done Hicham, and well done Ceasefire.

Michael
May 24, 2012 11:47

@Melbe

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/human_nature/2012/04/john_derbyshire_trayvon_martin_and_the_ignorance_of_racial_profiling_.html

Refuted.

And him being a mathematician has nothing to do with this issue. Mathematicians can be douchebags as well.

Marc
Aug 5, 2013 10:23

Very happy to see someone denounce Derbyshire and the racist cesspool that is “Taki” (which is full of dozens of other equally offensive and racist articles), but I don’t think Derbyshire’s vilely racist rant can be compared to Rich Lowry’s “The Murders that Don’t Count.” Lowry’s article gives a pretty accurate picture about how the murder of black Americans simply don’t matter, unless the alleged motives of said murder allows for promoting a particular agenda. If they take the time to read the article I think most readers will find Lowry (unlike Derbyshire) is not trying to indite the black community as a whole at all.

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