So John Derbyshire has been fired by National Review. I was on vacation for most of the controversy, looking at giant trees in Sequoia National Park while I was supposed to be opining on yet another racial controversy. It’s tempting to leave it at that, and yet I feel I have a thought or two to offer.
Rather than simply putting my hands on my hips and clucking my tongue, I’d like to offer some of my own personal experiences, some of which are retreads of stories I have told before — but all of which will hopefully explain why I found Derbyshire’s generalizations far too sweeping, to put it mildly.
This post is going to assume that you are familiar with the Derbyshire piece that stirred all this controversy. And if you’re going to start actively offering opinions in the comments, I suggest that you read the actual piece, and not simply the caricatures offered by Derbyshire’s critics.
That way, you’ll understand why I think the actual piece itself is so off target and unsettling.
Let me start with a piece I wrote in 2007 that I think sums up much of what I think of the life that takes place in what sheltered white people think of as “the ghetto”:
I visited Nickerson Gardens a while back in order to take pictures at a crime scene. Bounty Hunter Bloods patrolled the area, clearly annoyed that the police had invaded their space and temporarily disrupted their drug trade. Some stared at us. Some played dice and screamed obscenities.
But when we entered the residence where the crime had occurred, the tenants, who had recently moved in and were unaware of the murder that had occurred there, were as nice as they could possibly be. They apologized for the mess — really, it wasn’t bad at all — and allowed us to take pictures of their home. They asked why we were there, and when we told them, the man of the house started ticking off all his family members who had been murdered: his dad, his cousin . . . the list went on. We needed to crawl out onto a second-story ledge at one point, and the residents next door were similarly hospitable, letting me climb on their bed to hoist myself out the window for the pictures I needed to take.
As we walked across the street, three young Hispanic girls greeted us with a smile and a friendly “hi.” I smiled and said hi back — and silently hoped the Bounty Hunter Bloods hadn’t noticed. Jack Dunphy has written movingly of what can happen to kids who are caught being nice to law enforcement.
I am on my third tour in Compton; my first tours were 1999-2001, before and after my juvenile rotation. I used to go to Rosecrans Elementary School and talk to fifth graders about the justice system and the importance of staying out of trouble. Every year, I would invite a judge to speak to the kids. My favorite was the judge who had gone to school there, who told the kids that if he could study hard and become a judge, so could they. I told this story about the school in November 2003, but it still seems relevant:
I was teaching a weekly class about the criminal justice system, and there was a skit that involved someone being shot. I asked the students to raise their hands if they had ever heard gunfire from their houses.
Every hand in the room went up.
I asked them to raise their hands if a family member or friend had been shot.
Every hand but two went up.
So don’t tell me that these areas are lost. They aren’t. You look out at a classroom of 10-year-olds and tell me that they aren’t worth protecting.
While I am telling personal stories, I will add one I originally told in 2005, when I told a story about being the only white person in court most days, when I worked in Watts. It seems appropriate to re-tell it now:
When I worked in juvenile court at 76th and Central in Watts, I was very often the only white person in the courtroom. There were two courtrooms in the building, both run by black judges. On many days, all of the other players in court besides me — the judge, the clerk, the defense attorney, the court reporter, the probation officer, the bailiff, the minor, and the minor’s parents — were black.
So, one day the judge and the court reporter were talking about that George W. Bush guy. (This was during the 2000 election season.) The court reporter said: “Well, you know who supports him. It’s those white males!”
I looked at her with a smile and said: “Oh, come on. We’re not all that bad!”
She looked back at me, a little embarrassed, and said: “Oh, I wasn’t thinking about you. To me, you’re just one of us!”
I said: “I take that as a compliment.” And I did.
So while I was gently chiding her for her sweeping generalization about us “white males,” I did take it as a compliment that I fit in well enough in her world that she thought of me as “one of them.”
I went on to note that, in defiance of the lazy stereotypes that racists tend to hold, one of the black judges was a huge fan of classical music — opera in particular. He and I bonded over our shared love for classical music in general, and vocal music in particular — and I often benefited from this relationship by snorking up better seats at chamber music events where I saw the judge and he waved me up to some empty seat near the performer.
The judge has, regrettably, passed on since then . . . and I have less time to attend these wonderful chamber concerts. And frankly, it dampens my desire to go a little bit that I know I won’t see Commissioner Jones there. Not because I won’t be able to improve my seats, but because I won’t get to chat with him before and after the performance, and hear his booming laugh.
Now, does John Derbyshire deny the existence of black folks like Commissioner Jones, who aren’t out stealing, and bludgeoning whites in a racist frenzy? Of course not. But listen to the incredibly condescending way Derbyshire describes such black folks:
In that pool of forty million [black people in America], there are nonetheless many intelligent and well-socialized blacks. (I’ll use IWSB as an ad hoc abbreviation.) You should consciously seek opportunities to make friends with IWSBs. In addition to the ordinary pleasures of friendship, you will gain an amulet against potentially career-destroying accusations of prejudice.
Guess that amulet didn’t work so well for Derbyshire. But what strikes me about this language is how it must make Derbyshire’s black friends feel. Do they wonder if they are not really friends so much as “amulets” against charges of racism?
I was struck by many things in Derbyshire’s article, but this was one of the passages that really caught my attention. And this is not just a passing reference. Derbyshire really doubles down on the whole “make sure you can say some of your best friends are blacks” thing:
Be aware, however, that there is an issue of supply and demand here. Demand comes from organizations and businesses keen to display racial propriety by employing IWSBs, especially in positions at the interface with the general public—corporate sales reps, TV news presenters, press officers for government agencies, etc.—with corresponding depletion in less visible positions. There is also strong private demand from middle- and upper-class whites for personal bonds with IWSBs, for reasons given in the previous paragraph and also (next paragraph) as status markers.
Unfortunately the demand is greater than the supply, so IWSBs are something of a luxury good, like antique furniture or corporate jets: boasted of by upper-class whites and wealthy organizations, coveted by the less prosperous. To be an IWSB in present-day US society is a height of felicity rarely before attained by any group of human beings in history. Try to curb your envy: it will be taken as prejudice.
It’s impossible to imagine any black person of Derbyshire’s acquaintance reading this and not wondering what Derbyshire’s motive was in befriending them.
So. My experience tells me that yes, sometimes black people are suspicious of people of other races. Sometimes black people are criminals. But these generalizations are also true of whites.
As I alluded to in my 2007 piece quoted above, in my 14-year career in the District Attorney’s Office, I have worked in a number of areas that are heavily populated by black people. In addition to my previously mentioned juvenile assignment in Watts, I have been assigned to Compton on three separate occasions, as well as serving a stint downtown, which prosecutes a good deal of crime from South Los Angeles. Because I believe a good trial attorney must visit the scene of the crime he is prosecuting, I have visited locations all over South Los Angeles. It would be crazy for me to say that I feel as safe in these locations as I do where I live today.
But is the feeling of danger prompted by the color of the people — or by the economic despair and by the presence of a criminal element? While it is true that South Los Angeles has a significant gang presence that makes parts of it feel unsafe for unarmed whites, the fact is that gangs come in all colors and nationalities. In South Los Angeles, it’s not just blacks who are gangsters. It’s also Latinos and Samoans. Despite its largely black political leadership, Compton is a majority Latino area. In Long Beach there are black, Latino, and Asian gang members, as the city has the largest Cambodian population outside Cambodia. And in the San Fernando Valley, you’ll see plenty of violence from white gangs. So, depending on where you go, the criminal element comes in all different colors and nationalities.
So yes, South Los Angeles sometimes feels unsafe. And if Derbyshire had wanted to write a column about the interface between racial stereotypes and the occasional need citizens have to make snap judgments for their own safety, he could have written a provocative yet defensible column on that admittedly rather well-worn concept. For example, I can see telling my children: “if a situation feels dangerous, react accordingly, and don’t worry if it makes you look or feel like a racist. We all have built in danger detectors, and you don’t want to ignore yours for reasons of political correctness.”
But Derbyshire went much further than that. And as someone who has worked Compton for a large chunk of his professional career, I think it would be crazy for me to sign onto John Derbyshire’s bigoted view about black people. Let’s take another example of his silly (and I believe sheltered) outlook:
Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.
Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.
If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).
Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.
If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.
Jeez. Where you do start with something like this? First of all, Los Angeles has a very well-to-do neighborhood called Ladera Heights which is a “heavily black neighborhood.” According to John Derbyshire, I guess you’re supposed to avoid it. Except that it has beautiful views of the Los Angeles basin, it is perfectly safe, and I personally know people who are very happy to live there. Back when Mrs. P. and I lived in Marina del Rey, we would sometimes go and park our car at a friend’s house in Ladera Heights when we went out of town on vacation, because it was our impression that our car would be safer there than at our home in the Marina. Tonight I looked up a web site that says that crime in heavily white and wealthy Marina del Rey and majority black Ladera Heights is about the same. But we felt that our car was safer in the heavily black — but geographically removed and well-to-do — area of Ladera Heights.
After all, Mrs. P.’s dad had parked his car in the heavily white Marina del Rey area when we lived there — and suffered a break-in that cost him an expensive telescope and lenses. How could this happen in a largely white area, John Derbyshire?!
So I feel confident that John Derbyshire would be quite wrong to warn his children away from Ladera Heights because it is one of those “heavily black neighborhoods.”
I could make similar points about many of Derbyshire’s other silly arguments. Years ago, my wife and I attended an enrobing of a judge in Compton. He is white but his wife is black. The room was filled with black people. We thus ran afoul of Derbyshire’s advice to his kids, both to “[a]void concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally” and not to “attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.” Had someone suggested to me that the room was unsafe because it was filled with unknown black people, I would have judged that person insanely racist.
Ultimately, this is how I feel about Derbyshire’s piece. It is, in my opinion, simply inaccurate in ways that stem from his being (in my opinion) a sheltered white dude who hasn’t really been around that many blacks. (And the ones he has surrounded himself with might reasonably suspect they have been chosen to serve the insulting role of an “amulet.”) And so I don’t think we should see him as a fearless guy speaking unpleasant truths. I think we should see him as a clueless guy who made some dumb statements that make him look pretty racist. If National Review doesn’t want to associate with him any more, I can understand that.
I would feel differently if I thought Derbyshire were primarily speaking hard truths. But instead I believe he was mostly speaking in lazy and largely false stereotypes. I don’t feel like defending that, and it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that National Review doesn’t either.