The Derbyshire Rules of Racial Engagement

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I just got around to reading the notorious article by John Derbyshire that led National Review to sever its ties with him. To do an extended critique of the piece would be to accord it more respect than it merits, but there's one line in it that serves as a kind of microcosm of the whole thing and sheds some light on the mind of Derbyshire.

The piece consists of advice Derbyshire has given his children for navigating a world featuring black people, and one of his tips is, "Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally."

So let me get this straight: If you see five black people that you know personally, and they're in conversation with a sixth black person whom you don't know, there's a danger that the sixth person will assault you or something? Don't you think that, actually, if those five people are decent people, chances are they're not hanging out with a thug--and certainly not with a thug who would assault a friend of theirs in their presence? Wouldn't Derbyshire apply that rule of inference to white people? Why wouldn't the rule hold for black people?

And of course, there's also the fact that, even if you knew none of the six people, there might be cues that could put your mind at ease. If, say, these six black people are well-dressed middle-aged men, you could make the same generalization you'd make about well-dressed middle-aged white men: they're not crackheads who need money for their next fix. Similarly, for both young black males and young white males, there are cues that correlate with danger and cues that are cause for reassurance.

I realize this is all obvious. That's my point. John Derbyshire and his ilk like to cast themselves as the ones who are telling obvious truths about race that the rest of us gloss over. But Derbyshire himself seems to have been living in a world where some obvious things aren't visible, a world in which race looms so large as to obscure lots of valuable cues for navigating your social environment.

Derbyshire has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, and there's been some talk that this is to blame for his article. Well, his medical condition may account for his writing this stuff, but it's much less plausible that it accounts for his thinking the stuff in the first place. The article has the feel of a world view that's been long in the making, and his past writing isn't exactly devoid of evidence to that effect.

To be sure, Derbyshire's medical condition is reason to feel sorry for him. But so is the article itself.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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