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04.09.12

National Review’s Firing of John Derbyshire a Welcome Blow Against Racism

The conservative magazine’s decision to denounce bigotry by dismissing its columnist is a welcome move at a time when many on the right often foment hostility against blacks, Latinos, gays, and others.

“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 … 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 … Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians … Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white … Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.”

These observations were penned four days ago by writer John Derbyshire. Two days ago they resulted in his firing from the conservative publication National Review. And with that, National Review struck a blow for something this country desperately needs: an antiracist conservative movement.

Nonracism means avoiding bigotry; antiracism means denouncing bigotry. For most conservative politicians and pundits, the former is easy. The latter is harder. It’s harder because in a political party and an ideological movement that relies overwhelmingly on white, Anglo, heterosexual support, fomenting fear and hostility toward African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and gays and lesbians can bring listeners, readers, and votes. It’s harder because the people who play on that hostility and fear may be influential, articulate spokespeople for the conservative cause. And it’s harder because conservatives are so convinced that the media hold them to an unfair standard that their first instinct when one of their own comes under attack is to close ranks. How else can one explain the fact that during the 2012 presidential campaign, conservatives rallied behind one presidential candidate who has compared homosexuality to bestiality, another who said he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet, and a third who repeatedly called President Obama “the food stamp” president?

Denouncing bigotry in today’s conservative movement is like denouncing labor unions in today’s liberal movement. It carries a price, which is why National Review editor Rich Lowry’s decision to fire Derbyshire is so significant. National Review has long seen itself as the policeman of the conservative movement, escorting undesirable elements out of the club. It began doing so in the 1950s, when founder William F. Buckley insisted that the John Birch Society, which considered Dwight Eisenhower an agent of the Soviet Union, be run out of the conservative movement. This history of patrolling the American right has not spared National Review its own flirtations with racism. In 1957 Buckley defended segregation, arguing that “the central question that emerges … is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically? The sobering answer is yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.” As late as the 1980s, National Review still derided Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.

Denouncing bigotry in today’s conservative movement is like denouncing labor unions in today’s liberal movement.

Still, National Review’s sense of itself as conservatism’s conscience has also led it to reject right-wing bigotry. In 1993 National Review fired Joseph Sobran after repudiating what Buckley called his “contextually anti-Semitic” writing. After Sept. 11 the magazine stopped running Ann Coulter’s column when she called for America to “invade their [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.”

Derbyshire’s firing builds on that tradition. Twenty or 30 years ago, when Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond were still elder statesmen of the GOP, Derbyshire’s rant probably would have been overlooked. Anti-black racism—while still present—is less tolerated today, partly because of generational change and partly because of the decline in crime, which although mostly committed by whites, in popular discourse was often associated with blacks. On the right, resentment toward African-Americans has partially given way to resentment toward immigrants, from both Latin America and the Muslim world. Even Barack Obama is less often depicted as a Jeremiah Wright–style black radical than as a closet Muslim who wasn’t really born in the United States.

What America badly needs today is a conservative publication that challenges the right’s dehumanization of illegal immigrants and its fear-mongering nonsense about Sharia. National Review, with its history of challenging right-wing anti-Semitism and its growing intolerance for racism, is the obvious place. If Rich Lowry is genuinely repelled by John Derbyshire’s racism, I have a few other places I’d suggest he look.