The Derbyshire Implosion

Over the weekend, National Review ended its professional relationship with longtime contributor John Derbyshire, after he published a highly controversial article about race in a different magazine.  The online journal in question, Taki’s Magazine, is difficult to access at the moment, but you can try this link and wait for the page to load.

To take it from the top, Derbyshire was writing in response to a number of articles, prompted by the Trayvon Martin shooting, about black parents having “the Talk” with their children, particularly their sons.  One of Derbyshire’s mistakes is that he links to these pieces and alludes briefly to their content, but doesn’t explain exactly what “the Talk” is, before he sets about responding to it. 

In short, “The Talk” is a grim lecture about institutionalized racism against blacks, seasoned with very heavy insinuations – or outright declarations – that Trayvon Martin was killed by a racist, or at least a feeble-minded man swept along by heavy tides of institutional racism.  One of the articles Derbyshire linked, published by the Orlando Sentinel, is by a black father who described the Martin shooting to his 12-year-old son as follows:

You’ve heard about Trayvon. He’s the 17-year-old up from Miami to visit family in a gated Sanford community who was killed by a citizens-watch volunteer after a sketchy confrontation. The gunman’s a guy named George Zimmerman, a wannabe Barney Fife.

The boy died with a package of Skittles in his pocket.

Why? Son, I’d love to tell you there was some justification, but I can’t. Seems Zimmerman thought Trayvon was up to no good. That he looked suspicious.

Well, it’s true Trayvon wore a hoodie. Perhaps Zimmerman thought he had spotted the Unabomber. Likely, something else stoked his misgiving. Though the hood shrouded Trayvon’s face, it appears Zimmerman glimpsed all he needed: blackness.

So we’re back to the lie NBC News pushed with such vigor, by doctoring transcripts and audiotapes: that Zimmerman was motivated primarily by an obsession with Martin’s skin color.  Does anyone in America, of any racial background, really associate the hoodie with the Unabomber?  I can only imagine the columnist’s son frowning and asking “Who?” when Dad reached that part of the “the Talk.” 

The writer goes on to ask, in anguished tones, what “script” he might offer his son for “surviving walking while black.”  Among the options he dismisses are “never wear a hoodie,” “genuflect when confronted by a stranger,” and “confront your pursuer.”  He rather pointedly leaves out some details of exactly how Trayvon Martin went about “confronting his pursuer,” particularly those involving bloody noses, sidewalks, and head trauma.

There are plenty of ways to respond to this offensive and tragic nonsense without doing what John Derbyshire did.  Instead of arguing with the hysteria, mythology, and deeply counter-productive racial paranoia of “the Talk,” Derbyshire countered with “The Talk: Non-Black Version,” laid out as a very extensive set of increasingly ugly bullet points.  As an aside, if you actually are planning on discussing uncomfortable topics with your children, do not include a Power Point presentation.  They’re going to tune you out long before you reach point 10(b).

Derbyshire’s essay is hard for adults to read long before he gets to point 10(b), which is “Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.”  Point 10 is all about avoiding large numbers of un-vetted black people if you’re not black.  10(c) advises that “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.”  The author adds parenthetically that “neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot.”

The reader is also advised to “leave as quickly as possible” if attending a public event “at which the number of blacks suddenly swells,” and scrutinize the character of black politicians “much more carefully than you would a white.”  A warning is issued against offering “Good Samaritan” assistance to black people who are in distress.  Some unpleasant ruminations on the average intelligence and behavior of the black population are included, although Derbyshire is gracious enough to allow that there are also “black geniuses” and “black saints,” just as every other racial group has extraordinary members.

Keep in mind that all of this is explicitly presented as material Derbyshire has passed along to his children.  “My own kids, now 19 and 16, have had it in bits and pieces as subtopics have arisen,” he writes.  He’s not offering a sad meditation on what he suspects other people might be telling their kids.  He set out to answer ugly stereotypes and prejudices some black parents claim to have imparted to their children… by slapping down his own list of ugly prejudices, a clear violation of the “two wrongs don’t make a right” principle.

If I were going to give “the Talk,” to children of any skin color – or their parents – that’s how I would begin.  If we ever want the world to become any better, we should be inspiring children, not teaching them to hate and fear the world, or each other.  The poison offered by race hustlers, and politicians who derive power from persuading large masses of people that time stopped in 1964, and harmony lies at the mercy of a calendar whose pages have never turned, and never will.

Racial prejudice is dangerous because it’s irrational.  A society in which prejudice is deliberately cultivated moves further away from reason.  There is little reason to be found in the way many have reacted to the Trayvon Martin story, whose mythology is built upon the discarded husks of inconvenient facts.  Among other things, and most directly pertinent to “the Talk” storyline, young black men face a terrible number of far deadlier threats than armed white, or “white Hispanic,” neighborhood watch patrols.

Derbyshire did no one any favors by applying a coat of pseudo-scientific statistical paint to the same message of despair.  In the course of announcing the end of National Review’s relationship with Derbyshire, editor Rich Lowry described the offending column as “indefensible.”  This became a common term for the piece.  National Review is not obliged to say anything more, as they didn’t publish the essay, and had no editorial control over it.  It nevertheless feels unsatisfying to dismiss certain offensive writing as beyond the pale, without engaging or refuting it.  For a society that speaks often of how urgently we need “dialogue” about various critical issues, we spend a lot of time fretting about the unspeakable.  We speak of sun-drenched meadows of honesty where difficult topics may be addressed with courage, while we tiptoe through mazes and minefields.

The writing that prompted Derbyshire’s piece don’t seem to have earned much in the way of denunciation, and the authors don’t seem to have lost their jobs.  Is it “indefensible” for a father to tell his 12-year-old son that he has a significant chance of being randomly murdered by white people, entirely because of the color of his skin, because “walking while black” can easily have fatal consequences?  Would Derbyshire have been okay if he was a bit less blatant, and spent more time telling the reader how awful he felt for harboring his offensive ideas? 

Or is prejudice a sin of variable intensity, depending mostly on who the target is?  That would move it beyond the sphere of logic and principle, and into the realm of politics, where group identity matters more than individual actions, and certain things are no longer absolutely wrong, at least not for everyone.

I don’t have any problem denouncing the lot of them, having their ugly “talks” on both sides of the racial divide.  The divide is the great problem facing us, and it will not be healed by a single fine speech, or a pile of government programs.  It will be filled in by individuals of honor, good will, and compassion.   We’re better than what any version of “the Talk” would have our children believe, and they deserve to hear something better from us.  I have a real problem with people telling kids, of any racial background, that they can’t do any better, because every deck has been stacked against them.