Some thoughts on the John Derbyshire controversy

I just read a number of articles on the controversy surrounding conservative writer John Derbyshire‘s firing from National Review. He had written an article for Taki’s Magazine; the magazine has been accused of racism in the past, and Derbyshire’s article is considered racist by many — evidently including the decision makers at NR. It is odd that they fired him now since he has quite publicly declared himself a racist before.

Derbyshire’s article was entitled “The Talk: Nonblack Version.” and was a response to reports in the media of ‘the talk’ given by African-American parents to their children warning them against white racism.

Here is my take on Derbyshire’s “The Talk: Nonblack Version”:

I have given my children somewhat similar advice, and have received such advice from my father.

Living in Austria, where blacks are not a prominent minority, skin color did not play a role in my “talks”. But I have warned them against visiting certain neighborhoods; I encouraged them to cross to the other side of the street when approached by certain groups of people, and I have mixed in elements from the “black talk” he’s responding to, such as avoiding hoodies if you have to walk through neighborhoods where hoodies are considered the trademark of troublemakers, or not carrying knives or guns (even replicas) when walking through certain parts of town. I also warn them against behaviours that are perfectly legitimate if there is a chance that such behaviors might draw the unfavorable attention of the police, and I have warned my daughter against wearing clothing that might attract the attention of a potential rapist or molester.

If I lived in the UK or US, in a city where some of the neigbourhoods I woould warn them against have a predominantly black population, or a higher crime rate among blacks than among other segments of the population, I might mention that fact and include warnings not dissimilar from those spelled out by Derbyshire.

None of that is meant to reflect on law-abiding fellow citizens of any skin color, ethnic background, social stratum or profession, or against all inhabitants of such “seedy” neighborhoods, nor is it meant to say that all men are potential rapists; rather, what all of that is meant to do is help them avoid trouble by behaving prudently and unobtrusively.

In Slate Magazine, William Saletan argues that Derbyshire’s mistake is that his version of “the talk” encourages continued ignorance on the part of his kids by telling them to avoid interacting with blacks, and that this ends up perpetuating ignorance and prejudice. There is some truth to that, and Derbyshire’s “talk” was worded in such a way that he lays himself open to that charge.

On the other hand, the point of any version of “the talk” is not to deal with opportunities for interaction and learning, but keeping safe on the street or in other unsecured environments with crowds, or in encounters and situations where you have little personal choice who to associate with. Out on the street late at night on your own is not the time to work on world peace and understanding; it is the time to get home safely.

I agree with William Saletan that Derbyshire made a mistake, but it is not so much in the content (which is exactly what is to be expected from a self-admitted racist) as in the fact of having published it.

Here in Austria “the talk” given by parents to their children will focus more on socio-economic groups to beware of when out and about, although there are elements of racism when migrants or the neighborhoods dominated by them are viewed as dangerous. In societies like the US or the UK with large black population segments, racism is a more obvious problem. But this problem must be laid squarely at the feet of the white population, as a result of centuries of enslavement, colonialization and discrimination which has fostered racist attitudes on the part of much of the white population, as well as a defensive racism on the part of the black population.

For this reason any black version of “the talk” (which in a way is just as racist as Derbyshire’s, and Saletan’s arguments could equally apply to it) is reactive and defensive, remedial if you wish. There is no justification for the attitudes among the white population which necessitate “the talk” on the part of black parents, while history created and tends to confirm black suspicions about white people, especially those in authority. The black “talk” therefore has a “rightousness bonus” lacking in the “white” version, which means black people can admit giving it to their children without being immediately censured as racists.

A non-black, and particularly a white version of the talk may be prudent to give to your children (although Derbyshire’s version makes to many broad and questionable claims in support of his advice) but if it contains any advice based on racial or ethnic group membership (“racial profiling”) it is not wise to flaunt the fact that you are giving it, and it always needs to be paired with an explanation of the fact that WE (whites) caused the situation which necessitates it, and that it is primarily OUR responsibility to work towards changing the situation. Likewise, my advice as a father to my daughter to avoid provocative dress in certain situations needs to be paired with the admission that yes, in general it is we men that caused the culture that views women as sex objects, it is we men that produce and consume the pornography that encourages some men to cross boundaries they should not cross.

Derbyshire’s article fails in that it considers the black and the white versions of the “talk” to be morally equivalent, when they are not.

To use a historical parallel from my part of the world: A Jewish father in the 1930s warning his children against Germans is not the moral equivalent of a German father (then or now) warning his children against Jews.

It is this lack of moral sensitivity that renders Derbyshire’s article racist. I still marvel though about the outcry, considering that we all knew he was a racist. Why was that not an obstacle to his writing for NR until now?

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  1. Well that would explain why my Derb podcast stopped updating. I had no idea he was a racist! I guess I just wasn’t listening close enough, in hindsight I can sort of see it. I think that his frustration with minorities exploiting the welfare state probably is what blinded his moral compassion on this one, not that it justifies.

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