How John Derbyshire Perceived Racial Attitudes at National Review

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Older readers doubted the races could get along, younger ones found that offensive, and editors struggled to square the circle, he once said.

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National Review Media Kit

Now that National Review is "parting ways" with John Derbyshire, a longtime contributing editor who "reaped the whirlwind" for publishing elsewhere an indisputably racist essay, observers like my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates are pointing out that he has self-described as a "mild and tolerant racist" for a long time. Says Adam Serwer, "I don't really understand why Derb was fired now. He has always been this person." Derbyshire's latest is especially incendiary; it's also perfectly consistent with the his long held, purportedly well-intentioned, wrongheaded, repugnant views. How did he last so long at NR? The man himself had a theory. In a 2003 interview, Derbyshire was asked about the magazine and its attitudes. NR generally permits a surprisingly broad range of views to be aired, he said, but racial matters were different:

Any magazine that has been around for 48 years must face the problem that a lot of its most dedicated and loyal readership is rather old. The magazine needs to keep the loyalty of these readers for reasons both moral and financial; yet it must also be constantly trying to get new readers - the younger the better, so that they too will get the NR habit and join the long-term core readership. In America today this is a difficult balancing act, because very fundamental shifts of outlook have occurred in the past 48 years, among conservatives as much as - perhaps even more than - elsewhere. I frequently meet college students who tell me they are conservative, who have all the attributes of what seems to me a broadly conservative outlook on life and society, who want to read conservative publications... yet who have a deep dislike of many of the topics - not just the point of view, the actual topics - that interest older readers.

This shows up most especially in the area of race, and the penumbra of issues - immigration, for instance, or crime-fighting - that are associated with it. The kind of thoughtful and intelligent young people that NR would like to have as readers understand that there are problems and absurdities connected with race in our public life, and are happy to hear arguments pro and con about racial profiling, affirmative action, and so on. They laugh with us when we lampoon the more outrageous kind of black race hustler - a Sharpton, a Farrakhan, a Johnny Cochran. They are, however, determined to make the multiracial society work, they believe it can be made to work in spite of the hustlers and liberal guilt-mongers, and they are unwilling to read, say, or think anything that could be construed as unkind towards people of other races. The pessimism and cynicism on this topic that you rather commonly find among conservatives - including NR readers - born in 1930, or even 1950, are profoundly unappetizing to these younger conservatives. The editors of the magazine have to square this circle, and it ain't easy.

There isn't any way to know for sure whether Derbyshire's analysis was shared by higher-ups at National Review. What this account does provide is a window into the mind of one longtime contributor and his assumptions about the nature of the magazine for which he was regularly writing.

It's heartening that Derbyshire saw, in the younger generation of conservatives, a determination to make a multiracial society work. It is unsettling that a longtime contributor plugged in enough to hobnob on the National Review cruise perceived himself to be writing for a subscriber base of which a significant part wasn't determined to make a multiracial society work.

What's the alternative?

Perhaps that retrograde faction is inevitable when a magazine transitions (with much of America) from unapologetically segregationist to horrified at having been so in the space of a generation. That overdue evolution showed the limits of "standing athwart history yelling stop." So it goes today. Parting ways with Derbyshire isn't going to do anything to improve race relations in America. But it has brought National Review a step closer to relying on the younger rather than the older generation of conservatives. On subjects related to race that's a very good thing.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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