John Derbyshire, giving the “Talk” for non-black kids
The mild and tolerant racism I’ve owned up to, and which seems (from these Implicit Association studies) to be very common, is not usually a problem in people’s personal social lives. It’s never been a problem in my life. I’ve always got on pretty well with persons of all races…. But then, of course, as an individual, one can “navigate” through life, making choices that avoid difficult quandaries, by just the kinds of strategies outlined in my article.
John Derbyshire, talking about the “Talk.”
It was just last month that everyone was waiting to see if that guy who gave my last name a bad name would be arrested for shooting Trayvon Martin. John Derbyshire noticed that there were a lot of “whiny articles by black writers about ‘The Talk’ that black parents must give to their children, to help them avoid sudden death at the hands of white authority figures.” He answered with “The Talk: Nonblack Version” in Taki’s Magazine, because non-black kids need to know how to avoid sudden death, too, and there’s no way he was going to let the black writers do all the whining.
Derbyshire is not a man to keep his biases to himself. By his own admission, he sees African Americans through a lens of “mild and tolerant racism” (see the quote at the top of the post, from an interview in Gawker). His main interest in them seems to be a morbid fascination with race-ranking statistics and tabloid news stories. About the best thing he can say about American multiracial society is that we’re stuck with each other and better make the best of it, “like an unhappy married couple in a Strindberg play.” But it’s oppressive, having to deal with “the prissy horrified shrieking at commonplace observations and plain facts, the deception and (far worse) self-deception about human nature and human differences, the grovelling and self-abasement before inferior civilizations,” not to mention the “weasely lies and hypocrisy and preening moral vanity,” the “bullying and witch-hunting,” etc., etc. (⇓ sources of this stuff, and more ⇓). The whole arrangement is nonstop misery for the poor guy, but at least he’s got a nice magazine soapbox so he tell everyone about it.
The man is so wise he learns from the experience he avoids
As Derbyshire said to Gawker, he manages by using “the kinds of strategies outlined in [his] article.” It boils down to one simple strategy, really — avoid black people. That does seem to be the sensible thing for him to do, but it makes him hard to take seriously as an authority on the folks he’s avoiding. Maybe that’s why his kids “weren’t very receptive” to his advice, with “even some disgust in [his] daughter’s case.” After all those years of stewing in his own fear and loathing, the old man obviously has no clue about dealing with black people.
But Derbyshire isn’t giving simple-minded advice about how the kids should handle themselves. That might be ok for the black parents, who tell their kids things like, keep your hands out of your pockets so folks don’t think you have a gun. Derbyshire’s talk is much more high concept, all the way up to the “civilizationally consequential” fact that the Fields Metal in mathematics seems to be beyond the reach of the African genotype. But mainly Derbyshire is dealing in data. “Any fool can open his mouth and push out a string of words,” he says, “and every fool does. Give me some facts, some evidence, some credentialed research.”
But how does a data-driven Afrophobe get to the point where he can say, “in my experience, around five percent” of blacks are “ferociously hostile to whites and will go to great lengths to inconvenience or harm us”? It sounds almost like he realized, after years of near-fatal commuting, that if he gets on a subway with more than about 20 black dudes, someone usually leaves on a stretcher. But who would keep riding those trains long enough to get the percentages? (Son, you’re old enough now to go out into the world and collect mushrooms, but remember this: 5% of the red-spotted mushrooms you collect will send you to the hospital puking your guts out. Gosh, dad, how many red-spotted mushrooms did it take to figure that out?)
It must be more a matter of inconvenience than violence. Maybe the story is that about 1 in 20 times he deals with a black waiter or teller or ticket agent or whatever, he is inconvenienced, ferociously. But black isn’t the only thing all those interactions have in common. Derbyshire is up in there every time. Later in the piece, he invokes this reservoir of black hostility to explain why a white person should be braced for rudeness when they approach a counter staffed by blacks. If that’s what Derbyshire experiences, there’s a simpler explanation — an Occam’s razor no-brainer, really: the “hostility-based magnifying effect” is old Derb himself.
It’s the part about how half “will go along passively if the five percent take leadership in some event” where the thing really goes off the rails. What is going on in this man’s life that generates “events” where a ferociously hostile black person emerges, galvanizes about half of the black bystanders, and they proceed to inconvenience whitey. It sounds more paranoia than anything else.
The links that seem to be offering evidence or examples don’t refer to any sort of event, so they don’t clear anything up. Derbyshire links “ferociously hostile” to a video of some militant nutcase calling for the extermination of all white people. In the paragraph before that, “hostility” is linked to about 20 quotes compiled on FrontPage magazine to show that “anti-white hatred or prejudice” exists. So, big news — at least a couple dozen black people have expressed real hostility towards whites (⇓ or something like that ⇓) And that’s supposed to be evidence that there are ⇓ like a million black Americans ⇓ not just venting but acting on their racial animosity?
Murder is the theme of a couple of nearby links relating to the word “antisocial.” Murders are extremely hostile events, just not the kind that Derbyshire is likely to have much experience with. But it could be that when he writes “in my experience,” he’s referring to his experience of watching the news. That would explain a lot, and Derbyshire does describe himself as a “strong empiricist,” which means that for him experience is fungible — you see it, you read about it, ⇓ same difference ⇓. It could also be that the whole story about “ferociously hostile” black people is just incoherent, vindictive bullshit spiced up with a few fearmongering links.
Observing the bell curves: you just do it (if you’re smart)
Mostly Derbyshire doesn’t relate his points to his own experience, even when he’s describing how things will supposedly go for his kids. His big, sloppy, self-serving assumption is that the data is so rich and true, it tells you all you need to know. Certain experiences — the ones that show how true the data is — are inevitable. Mickey Mouse statistics tells us so.
(6) As you go through life, however, you will experience an ever larger number of encounters with black Americans. Assuming your encounters are random—for example, not restricted only to black convicted murderers or to black investment bankers—the Law of Large Numbers will inevitably kick in. You will observe that the means—the averages—of many traits are very different for black and white Americans, as has been confirmed by methodical inquiries in the human sciences.
There is some disclaimering before he gets to this — he’s not just telling kids to make assumptions and be rude! “[T]here is great variation among blacks in every human trait,” and most of that variation overlaps with other races, so “any individual black is entitled to the same courtesies you would extend to a nonblack citizen.” Nonetheless, the data shows that, for instance, the average black IQ is lower. If you’re a normal white person, then, the overall impression you get of black people should be marked by dull-wittedness. How could it not be?
I’ve actually been wondering about this since late last year, when Andrew Sullivan got worked up about how “p.c. egalitarianism” was killing research into intelligence (I have another post about that). Sullivan wrote that he was “gob-smacked” by the data on IQ and race but then he got defensive and added that the population differences are subtle. They’re not, as you can see from the twin bell curves at the top of the post. Derbyshire liked that figure, too — enough that he linked to it from his “Talk,” which meant record-breaking traffic for little old me (it would have been good form, though, if he’d linked to my post and not just the graphic).
It does seem that if IQ is all it’s cracked up to be, a casual observer should be able to see that gap without all the formal statistics. Nobel Prize-winning biologist James Watson must have thought so back in 2007 when he said that “even though he would hope all people are equal in intellectual capacity, ‘people who have to deal with black employees find this not true’.” I wonder if race-oriented IQ researchers would agree. My sense is that they wouldn’t — it strikes me that one of the very convenient things about their work is that it’s insulated from real life by a massive antiseptic wall of data. That’s not quite fair, though. Arthur Jensen apparently had enough interaction with his study population to notice that the IQ differences didn’t come through in everyday life as much as he expected — the low-IQ black kids seemed more normal and functional than the low-IQ white ones. So it seems that life is not exactly an IQ test, whatever Derbyshire thinks. Needless to say, ⇓ Jensen’s explanation ⇓ was not that his tests misunderestimated those black kids’ IQ.
Derbyshire must think that he’s observed the intelligence gap. On the other hand, I haven’t, and I bet my lifetime sample could kick his sample’s pathetic biased ass (qualitatively speaking, of course). How do I know that my sample is unbiased, though? Maybe my impressions are mostly from the upper tail. Who might really know from experience about population-level differences between black and white? It’s an ⇓ interesting question ⇓. It seems to me that there are good reasons to doubt most anyone who claims to see the situation clearly. Anyway, I’m not a particularly strong candidate, and only a fool would take Derbyshire as any kind of authority (no problem, though — those are the folks he’s writing for).
Statistical common sense: do you really need to get wet to learn about the rain?
Derbyshire says that his main advice, about avoiding black neighborhoods and crowds and the like, is just “statistical common sense.” He links the term (just like I did) to an old article he wrote, “Stereotypes Aren’t So Bad.” There’s no mention of stereotypes in the “Talk,” but a lot of his links feel more like a wink and a nod, a way of gesturing to the thing he means but can’t say because you-know-who is in the room. I guess the connection is that stereotypes are like an average impression across a whole culture. So it’s probably fair to say that what his point-by-point advice on black avoidance boils down to is, everyone knows that blacks are thugs, so act accordingly.
In a followup piece about the “fuss” his talk caused, Derbyshire tries to clear things up for the silly commenters who think that, for instance, their personal experience living in a nice black neighborhood somehow disproves Derbyshire’s statistical conclusions. If “the sky is overcast [and you] have to go out to an event where [you’ll] be in the open,” he explains, you “yield to [your] inner statistician” and “take an umbrella.” So true. And we don’t get that kind of innate “statistical common sense” from society or science or the media, we get it from the near-universal experience of watching clouds turn into rain that gets us wet (so Derbyshire is like the guy who hides under his bed at the first sign of clouds, then shows up in a magazine to preach about the dangers of dark weather). There is no shared experience of “concentrations of blacks.” According to my data they’re nothing to avoid and in fact tend to be a lot of fun. Your mileage may vary. But that doesn’t mean I disagree with Derbyshire’s advice. It probably is a good idea for kids to avoid crowds or neighborhoods that they’re utterly clueless about. They’re better off at home in front of the Disney Channel.
Derbyshire does suggest that we have a statistical experience of the black population that’s something like rain coming from clouds. It’s how he couches his big assumption: “You will observe that the means… of many traits are very different for black and white Americans” (my emphasis). More specifically, because of the difference in mean IQ, he predicts that “you will, on average, be dealt with more competently by a white than by a black” in the same role, and because of all the black hostility it’s likely that “you will be dealt with more politely” by the white, too. This is a statistical claim that any average white person who has regular interactions with both races should be able to judge. To me, that seems like a great reality check, but Derbyshire doesn’t see it that way. He doesn’t even say whether or not he’s describing his own experience.
But wait, don’t I live in this world, too?
I have to say, the man has some nerve, telling me how “[I] will, on average, be dealt with” by black people. I’ve been working and raising a family in a fairly integrated city for 12 years, and most any kind of social, commercial, or professional interaction I have will sometimes be with an African American. When I used to play jazz in Chicago, way back in the 20th century, I spent some time hanging out on the black side of a segregated city. Now and then I got to be a white minority of one. Same thing when I lived and travelled in East Africa. Through all of that I didn’t notice any excess of incompetence, rudeness, or stupidity. It’s true that I didn’t approach all those dark faces with my mental clipboard out, ready to note down any shortcomings, so who knows what I missed and what I’ve forgotten.
Now if I’d run into any ferocious hostility, I’m sure I would have noticed that. I can’t think of a single time that anyone has taken out their racial animosity on me, though, and I’ve been around plenty of black people who are proud, outspoken, and angry about racism. Of course that’s just my story, and unlike Derbyshire I realize that it’s at least as much about me and my circumstances as it is about them (here’s a much different story, for instance, that led the writer to “find poor black people less scary than their white counterparts”). But everything I’ve seen suggests that in face-to-face interactions, black people are very good at keeping their hostility to themselves — quite likely better at it, on the whole, than white people. Historically, starting with slavery, they had to be much better at it.
But I’m being ridiculous. When Derbyshire writes “you will be dealt with,” it’s not a prediction, and it doesn’t have anything to do with me. He’s talking to the kids, spelling out for them the obvious consequences of the IQ data plus the “magnifying effect… caused by affirmative action.” The intelligence gap is not a theory, it’s a fact, and there can’t be a shred of doubt that its effects are real. People with lower IQ are obviously less competent, affirmative action obviously means that black people with an inadequate IQ are hired in place of adequate non-blacks, so when they go to places like the DMV, higher-IQ folks are obviously going to have to deal with blacks who are obviously incompetent. Any idiot can follow the logic, and I’m sure many already have.
Personally, I’d want to model a bit more skepticism if I was pontificating at my kids. But the “Talk” format gives Derbyshire a nice backdoor way to highlight the grim reality of life in a multiracial society. That includes the political reality of a democracy that’s wallowing in “self-deception about human nature and human differences.” The main thing is the danger, of course, which means steering clear of certain neighborhoods and events and maybe enduring the indignity of having to clear out of public places when they’re overrun. But there’s also this low-level burden of incompetence and rudeness, because sometimes there’s no way to avoid “cognitive engagement” with blacks who have been allowed to rise above their station. What it all boils down to is, it sucks to have to share your superior country with an inferior race. That seems to be one of Derbyshire’s signature messages.
Self-portrait of the bullshitter as an old man
In his “Talk,” Derbyshire isn’t just giving advice, he’s explaining how the world works, but only in the most pathetically simplistic terms. And not just with things like competence and affirmative action — the basic concepts are fantastically shallow. For instance, the idea that as long as you don’t meet only bankers or only murderers, you’ve encountered a random cross-section of the population. That would be perfect bullet point for Statistics for Bigots and Fools (a book that hasn’t been written, as far as I know, but Derbyshire might consider it for his next pop-math writing project). Apparently we’re just stick figures jostling around like molecules in a gas, getting a nice little snapshot of the other stick figures as we bounce off them. The snapshots don’t reflect back on us, because we don’t bring anything to these “encounters” except our formidable powers of observation. That’s how it works for the Derbyshire types, anyway. In stick-figure world, the differences between us and them are, like, totally obvious. And there’s not even any selection bias or confirmation bias to worry about. It’s a very sweet setup, for a hack.
This is not an approximation of reality, it’s indifference to reality, and as philosopher Harry Frankfurt explains in his wonderful essay on the subject, an indifference to reality is the essence of bullshit (here’s my big intro to Frankfurt and bs). Derbyshire’s “Talk” is full of it, but the smelliest pile is the part about rude black folks who will “go to great lengths to inconvenience or harm us.” Whether he’s right or wrong about this is the wrong question. There is no data and it’s not clear that any part of his claim could be put to any kind of vaguely objective test. It’s an eye-of-the-beholder claim.
The right question is whether he has any idea what the fuck he’s talking about, and I don’t know how he could make it clearer that he does not. With actual humans out of the way, he’s free to tap his cherished beliefs about them. It looks to me like he’s loading up “blacks” with his own feelings of hostility — he’s just projecting. Wherever his information is coming from, it’s not from science or from any kind of meaningful interactions with black Americans.
The funny thing is that this hostility nonsense is Derbyshire’s most knowing claim — the only one in the piece that he describes as somehow his own observation, the only one that comes with percentages or probabilities, and the only time he adds his own insights into (black) human nature (“They will do this out of racial solidarity,” etc.). My guess is that the knowingness isn’t so much in spite of his ignorance as because of it. Because really, it’s hard to be a rational bigot, especially if you’re a pundit with a following of bigots. You aren’t free to follow the evidence, but you have to keep up the appearance of being especially factual and scientific. For “a strong empiricist, from early training” like Derbyshire, it’s got to be tough, ending up as just another bullshitter. It’d be hard not to overcompensate.
Anyway, what he ends up with, besides a nice little case study in the psychology of bigotry, is another retread of the myth of the angry black man. It’s just a commonplace racial slur. I wouldn’t say that Derbyshire is necessarily a commonplace bigot, but if not he’s sure good at playing one in the magazines.
The good kind of Negro: intelligent, well-socialized amulets
To round out his “Talk,” Derbyshire turns to the flip side of the coin — the good Negro (another well-worn bit of racist paraphernalia). The ones he singles out are the “intelligent and well-socialized blacks” (IWSBs). These are clearly excellent and very desirable folks, but that doesn’t stop Derbyshire from treating them with just as much ignorance and contempt as the rest of their race.
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.
Nothing like the voice of experience, huh? There’s no telling how many times Derbyshire got his butt saved by some nice “house Negro”-type friend. It’s just that none of them happened to work at the National Review. Mercedes-driving token blacks from all over the country, once they read his “Talk,” must have been practically tripping over each other for the chance to be an amulet, except being so well-socialized, they were all like, “After you.” “No, no, after you.” (There actually is an “Angry Black Lady” who offered to be Derbyshire’s “starter Negro”, she was so impressed that he managed “to pack so much racist fail into one post.”)
No, Derbyshire must be making this shit up, too, because it turns out that “IWSBs are something of a luxury good, like antique furniture or corporate jets,” and I don’t think he’s in the class of people who can obtain a thing like that. These IWSBs sound a lot like trophy wives, another human status symbol that bitter old men must be inclined to fantasize about.
Not that this kind of advice is necessarily bad. Louis Armstrong got practically the same tip from Black Benny, one of his New Orleans mentors, and apparently it served him well. He wrote about it in a letter to his manager, Joe Glazer (the quote is from a wonderful book called Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words — not only his own words but his own typography, which is as distinctive and improvisational as his music).
Dipper, As long as you live, no matter where you may be—always have a White Man (who like you) and can + will put his Hand on your shoulder and say—“This is “My” Nigger” and, Can’t Nobody Harm’ Ya.
There’s some race realism for ya. It’s amazing how a century of progress turned such a practical piece of advice into an ignorant whine of privileged self-pity.