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Race, writing, and skipping through minefields.

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.

 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

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.

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John Derbyshire, lately of National Review Online and currently a writer for, has stirred up a firestorm of protest with an allegedly “racist” article. Now myriads of conservatives (so-called) are posting, posing and posturing just like liberals in their rush to condemn him. I read Derbyshire’s comments and was not offended in the least. Basically, all he said was that whites and Asians should caution their children to avoid violence from blacks. Did he lie about anything? Distort the truth? No. Blacks are more violent than any other racial group, a fact supported by decades of crime statistics as… Read more »