John Derbyshire has been fired from the National Review for an openly racist column on how white people should advise their children with respect to “blacks”: for the most part, avoid them. Because on the whole, they are unintelligent, antisocial, hostile, and dangerous. Or as he puts it, avoid “concentrations of blacks” or places “swamped with blacks,” and leave a place when “the number of blacks suddenly swells,” and keep moving when “accosted by a strange black” in the street. The language is alarmingly dehumanizing: black people come in “swamps” and “concentrations” (and presumably also in hordes, swarms, and just plain gangs). And it's clearly meant to be a dismissal of the notion -- much talked about recently in light of the Trayvon Martin shooting -- that African Americans should be able to walk down the street without being shunned, much less attacked.
The column has been roundly condemned, and it’s probably the result that Derbyshire – who is suffering from terminal cancer – sought out in a final attempt at countercultural heroism. But the summary dismissal of the column – without substantive rebuttals to claims that are so racist as to seem to be beneath public discourse – means that he can play the role of victim of political correctness gone amok. Derbyshire claims that his ideas are backed up by "methodological inquiries in the human sciences," and includes links to sites that provide all the negative sociological data about black people you'd ever need to justify your fear of them, including the claim that "blacks are seven times more likely than people of other races to commit murder, and eight times more likely to commit robbery." So he can cast himself as someone who had the courage to tell it like it is – with all the sociological data backing him up – only to be punished for this by the reactionary hypocrites who control the public discourse. Once again, he can tell himself, those quick to cry “racism” have prevented an honest conversation about race.
If Derbyshire were a lone crank, none of it would matter much. But he’s not. No doubt a very large number of white Americans are sympathetic to the advice he gives in his column, and yet deeply resent any accusations of racism. They see such views not as racist but an acknowledgement of an unpleasant reality that they are not allowed to speak about in public because of dishonest social norms. Or they might admit, as Derbyshire once did, that they are "racist": not in the full sense, the pejorative sense, but by the skewed standards of current public discourse. In other words, they see them selves as advocates of a sort of enlightened racism that doesn’t shrink from calling a spade a spade but isn’t inherently unjust.
Enlightened racism is meant to escape accusations of being racist in the pejorative sense via two avenues: the first is the appeal to data I have just described. The second is a loophole to the effect that exceptions are to be made for individuals. Or, to put it bluntly: it’s not black people that they hate, but black culture. Disliking black culture but making exceptions for individuals is the loophole that many whites believe inoculates them against charges of racism, and it's the point of noting that they have black friends, or that they voted for Herman Cain or Barack Obama.
They could care less about skin color, they say; it really is the content of people’s characters that concerns them, and that content really does suffer more in blacks than whites. They are, they tell themselves, entirely open to the rare exceptions to this rule, and that openness is what acquits them of any charge of racism. Derbyshire’s column includes all the typical caveats to this effect: there are such things as “intelligent and well-socialized blacks” (a condescending designation made further dehumanizing by its abbreviation to “IWSBs,” as if he were branding livestock); and one should got out of one's way to befriend them. And in general, “any individual black is entitled to the same courtesies you would extend to a nonblack citizen” (again, strange language that fails to hide its contempt), and there are black saints and geniuses just as there are black morons and psychopaths.
Because they are so widespread and aim to restore the respectability of interracial contempt, these attempts at an enlightened racism deserve a rebuttal. Especially in light of the fact that those who hold such views often see themselves as the champions of reasons over sentiment, when in fact their views are deeply irrational.
So here we go:
First, a history of slavery, segregation, and (yes) racism, means that African American communities suffer from some social problems at higher rates than whites. But that doesn’t change the fact that the majority of black people – statistically, and not just based on politically correct fuzzy thinking – are employed, not on welfare, have no criminal record, and so on and so forth. So the kind of thinking that enlightened racists see as their way of staring a hard reality right in the face turns out to be just a silly rationalization using weak statistical differences. In 2010, for instance, the violent crime rate was 403.6 per 100,000 people. Or .4 percent. And of course, those of us who don't live in neighborhoods with high crime rates and don't fit other high risk demographics have an annual chance of victimhood that is much less than .4 percent. And over an entire lifetime, our risk of being murdered is also about .4 percent. In other words, one's chances of being a victim of violent crime is already so low, that even accounting for higher crime rates among African Americans, one's chance of being a victim of violent crime by an African American remains very low.
The argument that Derbyshire and those like him make is that we are justified in treating an entire population as a threat – in essentially shunning them in the most degrading way – because one's chances of being harmed by any given member of that population, while very low, is not quite as low as one's chances of being harmed by the general population. It’s an argument that starts out with sociological data and quickly collapses to reveal the obvious underlying motivation: unenlightened racism of the coarsest variety.
Second, there is the issue of character: because this, after all, is what really motivates these attempts at establishing an enlightened racism that gives individuals the benefit of the doubt while acknowledging the truth about general cultural differences. And here the idea is that black people generally have worse characters than white people: that they are more hostile, unintelligent, promiscuous, rude, and so on and so forth.
I think it suffices to respond in the following way: people tend to mistake their discomfort with the cultural differences of a group with that group’s inferiority. (They also tend to conflate their political and economic advantages with psychological superiority). But they should reflect on whether that discomfort really provides them with the evidence of inferiority they think it does. If they respond with sociological data about education and birth rates and all the rest, we only have to respond that like crime rates, they’re exactly the sort of consequences one would expect from a history of oppression and even then fail to justify racist stereotypes. For example, in 2009 for Americans 25 years and older, 81.4 percent of African Americans and 90.4 percent of non-Hispanic whites had a high school diploma; and 17.6 percent and 31.1 percent respectively had bachelor's degrees. Hardly the kind of statistical differences that will allow us to determine the education level of a randomly picked individual based on race alone.
The fact is, that where we pick a white person or black person at random, the same truths hold: they very likely have a high school diploma, and probably do not have a bachelor's degree. They’re probably employed and not on welfare. They’ve probably never been to prison, and they almost certainly are not going to harm you. These are the broad statistical truths that simply do not vary enough between races to justify the usual stereotypes.
So here is the hard truth that advocates of enlightened racism need to face: their sociological data and ideas about black character, intelligence and morality are post-hoc rationalizations of their discomfort with average cultural differences between whites and blacks. The fact that they have black friends and political heroes, or give individuals the benefit of the doubt as long as they are “well-socialized” and “intelligent” just means that they can suppress that discomfort if the cultural differences are themselves lessened to a tolerable degree. And so they need to disabuse themselves of the idea that true, unenlightened racism is a term very narrowly defined: that it requires a personal hatred of individual black people based on their skin color despite evidence of redeeming personal qualities. What they think of as redeeming personal qualities are just qualities that tend to make them less uncomfortable. But the hatred of black culture and post-hoc rationalizations of this hatred using sociological data are just what racism is.
This is not to say that mere discomfort with cultural difference is the same thing as racism (or xenophobia). Such discomfort is unavoidable: You’d have this sort of discomfort if you tried live in a foreign country for a while, and you’d be tempted by the same sorts of ideas about how stupid and mean people are for not doing things the way you’re used to. They’re too emotional, or not emotional enough; they’re less intelligent, or no fun; they’re lazy, or all they do is work. In these circumstances, strange customs become “stupid” because they reflect less of ourselves back to us than we’re used to. That lack of reflection is felt not only as a distressing deprivation of social oxygen, but as an affront, a positive discourtesy. The mature way to deal with such discomfort is to treat it as of a kind with social anxiety in general: people are strange, when you’re a stranger. Give it some time, and that changes. But it won’t change if you develop hefty rationalizations about the inferiority and dangerousness of others and treat these rationalizations as good reasons for cultural paranoia.
In the mean time, the consequences of that paranoia is profound: many white Americans seem to have difficulty engaging in the required reflective empathy, and imagining how they would feel if they knew that every time they walked into a public space a large number of a dominant racial majority looked at them with fear and loathing. They might, under such circumstances, have a bad day.
-- Wes Alwan