It has been a rough couple of days for our friends over at National Review. On Thursday their longtime contributor John Derbyshire published a racist screed on a website called Taki’s Magazine that has caused NR some serious embarrassment. Ultimately, enough of Derbyshire’s colleagues called for his head that he was fired. Conservatives may hope that by cutting Derbyshire loose they can avoid being associated with views such as his. But the truth is that their relationship with the racist right-wing fringe is far deeper and more complex than any one writer.
Derbyshire’s piece referenced the widespread discussion, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder, of how black parents must tell their children that when they go out into the world they will face suspicions solely because of their race. “There is a talk that nonblack Americans have with their kids, too. My own kids, now 19 and 16, have had it in bits and pieces as subtopics have arisen. If I were to assemble it into a single talk, it would look something like the following.”
Derbyshire went on to list a series of assertions about African-Americans. The least offensive were technically factual statements presented in a hostile manner and totally lacking in relevant context. For example, he wrote, “Of most importance to your personal safety are the very [emphasis his] different means for antisocial behavior [between whites and blacks], which you will see reflected in, for instance, school disciplinary measures, political corruption, and criminal convictions.” Of course, the fact that blacks might be over-represented in criminal convictions and school disciplinary measures because of racist assumptions and practices among the authorities, fed by pseudo-scientific claptrap such as Derbyshire’s column itself, does not occur to him. Derbyshire’s column also makes no mention of the historical and contemporary framework for modern race relations in the United States, such as slavery, segregation and persistent structural economic inequality. And it only got worse from there.
If Derbyshire had stuck to merely implied rather than overt racism, he would not have lost his job. As Elspeth Reeve noted in the Atlantic Wire, publications such as National Review have long relied upon writers like Derbyshire to cater to their readers’ baser instincts by putting an intellectually refined gloss on bigotry.
But Derbyshire went much further. He descended into purely imagined assertions of racial animosity. “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,” wrote Derbyshire. “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.” He offers no basis for this except for a link to a decidedly non-viral short YouTube video of an obscure author expressing a desire to kill white people.
Derbyshire then went on to offer his children horrifyingly racist advice on how to avoid black people so as not to be a victim of violent crime. “Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks,” Derbyshire urges. “If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.” He also advocates racist voter behavior. “Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians. Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.” He continued on with sections on affirmative action and advice to make a few black friends to burnish your public image. The piece was odious, but so over the top that it was almost funny as a kind of self-parody.
Fellow writers at National Review who weighed in did so with appropriate chagrin. On Friday Josh Barro wrote a Web column for Forbes urging NR to dump Derbyshire so as to prevent their other writings on race from being tainted by guilt through association. Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru tweeted that they disapproved of his piece.
On Saturday NR editor Rich Lowry posted on their blog saying that Derbyshire had been relieved of his duties.
“Anyone who has read Derb in our pages knows he’s a deeply literate, funny, and incisive writer.… 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.”
Noticeably absent from Lowry’s statement was any mention of the word race, racism or what exactly they found so distasteful about Derbyshire’s article. By calling Derbyshire “cranky and provocative,” Lowry seems to imply that Derbyshire’s racism is merely an extreme manifestation of his avuncular crankiness. And he doesn’t venture to explain why Derbyshire was allowed to dance “around the line on these issues” until now.
Clearly, National Review and other conservatives hope that by cutting Derbyshire loose they can avoid accusations of institutional racial insensitivity and go back to whining that they are unfairly accused of racism. As political blogger Ben Smith tweeted, “Twitter [is] just overflowing with relief from conservatives eager to shrug off a kind of generational legacy on issues of race.”
Their eagerness is understandable. The conservative movement, and National Review, has a long history of accepting, and then occasionally expurgating, racist elements. NR itself famously editorialized against civil rights. The fathers of the modern conservative movement—Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan—opposed the Civil Rights Act.
Conservatives would like you to think that is all in the past and that today they stand for racial equality, while liberals endorse preferences for racial minorities. In fact, conservatives have never fully accepted the civil rights revolution. Right now, for instance, they are attacking the Voting Rights Act in court and in National Review. According to a 1989 article in Spy magazine, casual racism was frequently tossed around in NR’s office.
And it’s not as if Derbyshire has never endorsed bigotry before. Back in 2001 he wrote in National Review Online in favor of stereotyping: “the racial stereotypes that white Americans hold of black Americans are generally accurate; and where they are inaccurate, they always under-estimate [emphasis his] a negative characteristic.” He said it would be better if women did not vote. In 2003 he said in an interview, “I am a homophobe, though a mild and tolerant one, and a racist, though an even more mild and tolerant one.” This is not the first time National Review has carried an offensive writer and only dumped him or her after an especially embarrassing episode. Ann Coulter spewed hateful invective for years, and she left National Review only after she wrote a column in 2001 calling for America to “invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." And she wasn’t even fired for that. Rather she got into an argument with her editors about whether they would publish a self-defense she wrote, and they let her go after she publicly complained they were “censoring” her.
Nor is Derbyshire the only person in the conservative media sphere holding views such as his. Taki Theodoracopulos, the editor of the magazine that published his rant, is the co-founder, with Pat Buchanan, of The American Conservative. Taki himself has written for National Review. Taki’s Magazine also features the work of Steve Sailer, whom Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting refers to as “a well-known promoter of racist and anti-immigrant theories.”
The conservative media has generally responded to Martin’s death by unfairly assaulting his character. Rush Limbaugh, the most popular conservative talk radio host, regularly makes racially inflammatory and insensitive remarks. Fox News also has a long history of what Media Matters terms “racially divisive coverage.”
In February I saw Derbyshire speak on a panel on “the failure of multiculturalism” at the massive Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, DC. His co-panelists included Peter Brimelow, editor of the notoriously xenophobic website VDARE and author of Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster, a book devoted to lamenting the influx of non-white immigrants. Issues of Chronicles magazine, a far-right publication, were handed out at the panel and they featured a back-page column by Taki filled with racist, homophobic fear-mongering.
At the CPAC panel Brimelow, who has written for National Review, mentioned that NR had “purged” people like him. Derbyshire’s firing isn’t the first time NR has had to distance itself from an embarrassing bigot. Unless it, and the conservative movement, change their substantive views on civil rights and racial equality, it probably won’t be the last.