Lessons from John Derbyshire’s Dismissal

Sam Fulwood III discusses the writer’s racist piece last week and how Derbyshire’s subsequent firing reflects a changing conservative audience.

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Conservative writer John Derbyshire, who was fired from <i>National Review</i> in response to a racism-laden piece he wrote for a little-known website, joins the likes of former MSNBC commentator Pat Buchanan, pictured here, who was fired for writing an odious book lamenting the decline of white supremacy in the United States. (AP/ Ann Heisenfelt)
Conservative writer John Derbyshire, who was fired from National Review in response to a racism-laden piece he wrote for a little-known website, joins the likes of former MSNBC commentator Pat Buchanan, pictured here, who was fired for writing an odious book lamenting the decline of white supremacy in the United States. (AP/ Ann Heisenfelt)

I believed writer John Derbyshire’s racist screed published last week in Taki’s Magazine—a right-wing website that I’d never heard of before—was a belated April Fool’s joke.

Titled “The Talk: Nonblack Version,” Derbyshire pens a reactionary piece to the cyberchatter about the talk that most—maybe all—black parents give to their offspring about navigating a white-dominated society. The talk gained social media cred in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, as black parents have noted the unfairness of having to tell their children, especially young boys, how to behave when in predominantly white environments.

Derbyshire, on the other hand, serves up a 15-point alternative that nonblack parents should provide for their children. His suggestions are a rogue’s list of racist stereotyping and codified prejudices that even he admits his own daughter rejected as racist and offensive.

At the risk of drawing too much attention to it, suffice to say, his points 10 through 10(i) are the most openly offensive racism I’ve read since being forced 35 years ago in college to endure Thomas F. Dixon Jr.’s trilogy of novels that defends the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan.

But unlike a history professor’s required reading lists, Derbyshire’s article crossed my computer screen via social media, which nowadays is the way such things (both news and nonsense) typically get started. (Thank you and damn you, Facebook and Twitter!) Still, I read what Derbyshire wrote with open-mouth amazement. He’s someone I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to in the past, so I assumed this was some sort of Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert-like send up. Nobody would seriously say this, I thought.

I was wrong. Derbyshire, I’ve since learned, is a British-born uberconservative writer for National Review. Or was. Apparently Derbyshire’s article proved too much for even National Review editor Rich Lowry, who sacked him after enduring withering criticism for employing him as a featured writer. In announcing his departure, Lowry wrote: 

His latest provocation, in a webzine, lurches from the politically incorrect to the nasty and indefensible. We never would have published it, but the main reason that people noticed it is that it is by a National Review writer. Derb is effectively using our name to get more oxygen for views with which we’d never associate ourselves otherwise. So there has to be a parting of the ways.

There was no other choice. The man had to be fired because he was bad for business, even if the business is spouting conservative views that some readers come to expect and uncounted others actually embrace.

In fact, a lot of this has been going around lately and Derbyshire is the latest in a string of hard-right conservative reactionaries losing their moorings. Pat Buchanan lost his highly visible (and lucrative) position on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” after writing an odious book lamenting the decline of white supremacy in the United States. More recently, Rush Limbaugh saw advertisers flee his syndicated radio talk show after he called Georgetown Law student and women’s health advocate Sandra Fluke a "slut."

But perhaps there’s a larger and uplifting message in this trend of right-wing flameouts. Conor Friedersdorf, a writer for The Atlantic, seems to think so. He avers that hardline racist views find a receptive audience only among a dwindling number of older white Americans, mostly those for whom segregation and Jim Crow represented the good old days. Some of those folks read National Review or watch “Morning Joe,” but not enough of them to make those media outlets profitable.

The future, especially one based on social media outlets, belongs to younger people. Even among the young who embrace conservative issues and policies, overt racist attitudes don’t work. In fact, many are offended by the blending of racism and their politics.

Friedersdorf makes this point rather dramatically by quoting Derbyshire’s own views as expressed in a 2003 interview where Derbyshire described the challenge of writing about race for a changing audience of conservative readers like those at National Review. An older set of readers longed for stridently racist views that recall an earlier day. Younger conservative readers, he said, are “determined to make the multiracial society work.”

“On subjects related to race,” as Friedersdorf concludes and I agree, “that’s a very good thing.”

Derbyshire, like Buchanan and Limbaugh, appealed to the losing side of the demographic trend. It’s only a matter of time before they’re historic relics of a time we all would rather forget. That’s the truth and not a joke.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)