By Harry Stein.
AS JOHN DERBYSHIRE, a British conservative author of a now-viral blog piece about talking to your children about race, should have realized, there is a lot of ugly history attached to the subject of racial politics in America. It’s a topic that engages passions that must be respected, and especially by those on the right.
Why? Partly because fifty years ago, when it mattered — when racism truly was rampant in America and to oppose it often meant showing some actual courage (and not just the moral preening common today ) the right was on the wrong side of this defining issue. This was true even of those, like Barry Goldwater, Mr. Conservative himself, who opposed civil rights legislation on principled philosophical grounds revolving around federalism – as Goldwater later had the good grace to admit. Thus it is that ever since, liberals have used their influence over the media and the educational establishment to cast themselves as good and decent on race – and conservatives as constitutionally small-minded and intolerant, their bigotry kept in check, if at all, only by the merest veneer of civility.
So my first thought on reading Derbyshire’s “The Talk” – infamous overnight, and which, for all its many qualifiers, was easily read as callously indifferent to America’s tortuous racial past – is that I made a similar mistake just a couple of weeks ago, when the Trayvon Martin story first went viral. Reading of the “Million Hoodie March” in New York, I whipped off a piece for City Journal on how, far from an innocuous garment, the hoodie was associated in the public mind with criminality. In response came a torrent of abuse on my insensitivity and, yes, my unvarnished racism. So I was not surprised the very next day by what happened to Geraldo Rivera when he said the same thing.
TALKING ABOUT DERBYSHIRE yesterday morning with a friend, I mentioned the hoodie thing, and how that episode had reminded me that talking about race is akin to skipping through a mine field. He was incredulous. “It took that?” he said. “What about what happened to you in Dallas?”
Oh, yeah – there was that. It happened about ten years ago. I made a speech before a high-toned audience and concluded with what seemed a telling and amusing story about my high-school aged son’s quarrel with his politically correct English teacher who insisted Huckleberry Finn was racist for its use of the n-word. However, in telling the story, I quoted Mark Twain and therefore also used the offending word.
Big mistake. Two days later, a vicious piece appeared in the Fort-Worth Star Telegram portraying me as an unreconstructed bigot. And in short order, it showed up in a bunch of other papers in Texas and far beyond. It was, trust me, not pleasant.
But that episode did have a happy ending of sorts, which is also telling. A couple of months later I was persuaded by the editor of City Journal to write about the experience, and so, reluctantly, I did. The piece was entitled “How I Was Smeared” and it clearly hit a nerve. In short order the story was picked up by The Wall Street Journal and others, and a gratifying number of Texas readers – many of whom had perhaps also found themselves derided at some point for the sin of independent thinking – ended up canceling their subscriptions to the offending papers.
So, yes, while I understand much of what Derbyshire was trying to say, I very much regret how he said it.
AS IT HAPPENS, I’ve just written a book, out next week. Its title will convey an idea of its content: No Matter What…They’ll Call This Book Racist. And, they will call it that, because I did not pull any punches. In fact, it treads some of the same ground as Derbyshire. Yet precisely for that reason, it was vital to me that the book not take any cheap or easy shots. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wanted to know that smart and independent black people would read even those parts with which they might disagree and feel I had been honest and fair.
I don’t know John Derbyshire’s heart, nor do I know what was in his head when he wrote his piece — maybe the same thing. Certainly he must have been sick and tired of all the pious pieces he cited in “The Talk,” and he was absolutely right – as he is right to loathe all the rest of the media-driven b.s. on race. Still, I felt he did paint with a very broad brush, and I’m guessing Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele would feel the same way.
All thoughtful people want to resolve America’s great historical ailment, racism. But one of the things we’ll have to do if that monumental enterprise is to have any chance of success is to address honestly the desperate condition of the urban underclass – not only because it is the right and moral thing to do, but because, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan so presciently observed, the pathologies that emerge there eventually take root throughout the rest of society.
Speaking truth to a smug and arrogant establishment is a vital first step, but next comes following through with innovative solutions that will actually help. Newt Gingrich may have been showered with ridicule from all the expected quarters when he talked of the need to foster a work ethic in the inner cities, but that message resonated with millions of Americans – including the likes of Bill Cosby – who have had it with the excuse of white racism and black victimhood that destroys neighborhoods just as it erodes character.
Still, white racism and black victimhood are stereotypes on which a great deal of political power rests. If real solutions to racial problems are found, that power will evaporate. So those who flourish because of racism will do everything in their power to prevent it from disappearing. Derbyshire should have known that – it’s certainly something important we can never afford to forget. That’s why, if we are able to make a difference by looking at the problems associated with racism, they will call us racists – no matter what.
Harry Stein is a journalist, a novelist, a contributing editor to City Journal and the author of the forthcoming book, No Matter What, They’ll Call This Book Racist: How our fear of talking honestly about race hurts us all, to be published 17 April 2012. He previously wrote about the media and Al Sharpton’s role in covering racial issues.