Should John Derbyshire be fired for being an insensitive lout?

If you havent' seen Derbyshire's article in Taki Magazine, you can read it here (be prepared for slow loading).

His column deals with the white counterpart to what black American parents refer to as "the talk" they give their children about living in a white world. Some of it is valuable advice. Some of it is stupid. A lot of it is insensitive.

And some of it could easily - and is being - construed as racist.

To wit:

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.


(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.

(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.

(10c) 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).

(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.

(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.

(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.

(10g) Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.

(10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.

(10i) If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.

Derbyshire's musings are fodder for those who always want to see racism in the way that whites percieve blacks in America. In fact, perception trumps reality in the black community when it comes to attitudes by whites toward blacks. Part of this is certainly due to the life experience of black Americans who deal with prejudice and bigotry on a daily basis in their contacts with whites. But there is also too much a tendency to generalize and stereotype - not surprising because those qualities are part of being human and are hard to resist for anyone of any race.

This is unfair. But it is also the way things are. And there is a fine line between genuine "political correctness" that should be resisted and empathy and sensitivity that stills our thoughts and makes us bite our tongue rather than give voice to our fears, our doubts, and our own flawed perceptions of how blacks view whites. Part of getting along is simply keeping your mouth shut out of respect for the notion that no matter how you say something, it is likely to be misconstrued and therefore, be considered insensitive. "Intent" means little when your words will either be deliberately or innocently twisted to conform to someone's worldview.

Derbyshire goes too far. His qualified, common sense advice on staying safe notwithstanding, there is an ugly undertone to his writing that is, if not racist, then certainly ignorant and shallow. Don't play good Samaritan if a black is "in distress" on the highway? What if the unfortunate needs assistance that would save his life? What kind of lessons is he teaching his children? And while only the most rabid racialist would say something negative about Derbyshire's warning to his kids to avoid heavily black neighborhoods, what is his problem with attending events where there are a lot of blacks, or his advice not to live in a municipality run by black politicians? This is utter nonsense and shows an ignorance profoundly disturbing to the sensibilities of fair minded people.

No doubt "the talk" black parents give their kids about whites is, in some ways, just as filled with stereotypes and misperceptions as Derbyshire's fantasy conversation. But at least black parents have genuine experiences upon which to draw their life lessons to pass on to their children.

Derbyshire appears to have given counsel to his fears and is passing on attitudes that could easily be seen as racist at worst, and at best, a towering ignorance regarding the nature of the black/white divide in America.

Should he be fired? Derbyshire makes his living trying to be provocative. But if you were to fire him, you'd have to fire every liberal and conservative columnist who ever wrote something insensitive toward this group or that. It's an occupational hazard for a Derbyshire, or a Krugman to give offense -- even where none was intended. Unless you are Thomas Friedman, whose only offense appears to be an obliviousness to reality, columnists will step in it every once and a while.

The torrent of criticism directed toward Derbyshire is well deserved. Rather than fire him, let us hope that the criticism chastens him and teaches him a lesson in humility, if not empathy and understanding.