Deep Thoughts

Racism in ‘Harper’s Magazine’

November 30, 2018

Racism in ‘Harper’s Magazine’

There’s a certain type of black public intellectual who is becoming increasingly common. A leftist identitarian, as it were, his constant subject is racism—namely, what he believes to be the ongoing systemic white oppression of blacks.

His justification for this belief, however, is quite facile. He references group differences (or inequalities) and the past slavery and other past mistreatments of blacks, as if these things by themselves suffice to prove his case. They don’t—not even close.

What is more, for all his indignation and high-toned words, in many instances, it’s plainly he himself who is the racist. What really bothers this hypocrite, his reasoning reveals, is not racial injustice, but lack of black dominance. He is motivated by envy, not righteousness. He wants power, not equality.

So it is with the black writer Mychal Denzel Smith. In his essay “The Gatekeepers” in the current issue of Harper’s, Smith writes:

Each time there was a killing or a violent arrest [of a black man] caught on video, or a new report on police violence, white editors asked if I would be interested in writing about it for their publications with majority-white audiences. They offered to pay me—a young, broke writer—a higher fee than I had received at the black-run websites. And I said yes.

As I found during that time, the black public intellectual, so defined, is largely responsible for defenses and explanations of black culture, or for arguing in favor of black people’s humanity and right to life, for a white audience. This necessarily constricts the questions we are able to ask and degrades the level of discourse. Consider the amount of energy expended by black writers and pundits defending the character of victims of police violence. To participate in this dialogue requires an excavation of black pain for the consumption of a white public; it takes up space that could otherwise be used to consider the function of policing or the root causes of racist violence. It leaves no room for new ideas or even real debate.

Like many conservatives, Smith doesn’t trust the white liberal intellectual class, and for good reason. For whether it’s commissioning an article “on police violence” or teaching A People’s History of the United States, the white liberal intellectual is usually self-serving. He doesn’t really care much about blacks or other victim groups, but is like a big child playing ping-pong. Today he bats around race, tomorrow it’s class, next week it’s feminism, and on and on. Fundamentally, the game doesn’t vary, and as with Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and other Democrat politicians, he isn’t serious about changing the status quo. On the contrary, in effect if not in intent, he uses pseudo-moral manipulation to preserve it, so that he himself continues to benefit. Smith and other black public intellectuals see through this pretense, and it’s to their credit that they frankly say so.

And yet, there are profound problems with this passage, which ought to embarrass the magazine’s unexacting editors. Does “a white audience” really need anyone to argue “in favor of black people’s humanity and right to life”? No. It’s 2018, not 1818. The trouble is that Smith has evidently given no thought to the context in which police violence against blacks occurs. Although they constitute only 13 percent of the population, blacks commit 53 percent of all homicides and are disproportionately represented in violent crimes generally. Most violent black crimes are committed by black men under 40; that is, about 4 percent of the population. Disproportionately represented in violent situations, this group seems disproportionately shot and killed by police. But once you account for the criminal disparities—something few people want to do—the notion of an epidemic of police violence against young black men becomes untenable.

“The problem here is the irrational nature of human morality itself, which produces endless confusion that people take for wisdom and virtue.”

Of course, there are instances in which police unjustly commit violence against and kill young black men, and needless to say, each is a great evil. But again, the data don’t bear out the common belief that there’s an epidemic of police violence against this group. In fact, a police officer is 18 times more likely to be killed by a black man than vice versa. Though they’re only 6 percent of the population, black males have made up 42 percent of all cop-killers in the past decade. The actual epidemic in this country is young black men killing young black men. In her Sept. 3, 2016, article “The Lies Told by the Black Lives Matter Movement,” Heather Mac Donald observed:

Last year, the police shot 990 people, the vast majority armed or violently resisting arrest, according to the Washington Post’s database of fatal police shootings. Whites made up 49.9 percent of those victims, blacks, 26 percent. That proportion of black victims is lower than what the black violent crime rate would predict.

Similar statistics are found year after year. That police, like those who serve in the military, have an exceedingly difficult job—in which violence and death are sometimes unavoidable—never occurs to writers like Smith. He asks us to “consider the amount of energy expended by black writers and pundits defending the character of victims of police violence.” Yet he doesn’t mention that violent thugs like Michael Brown don’t merit such defense.

Not that we should be surprised by these omissions, for the problem here is the irrational nature of human morality itself, which produces endless confusion that people take for wisdom and virtue. Much of morality consists of trying to apply certain a priori intuitions—values we have because of the sort of person we are—to matters wherein they may or may not be applicable. Thus, in their pity, or resentment, or in some complex of both, and with the frequently unjust American history of black and white relations in mind, people are motivated to believe in a terribly simplistic story: the bad white cops versus the innocent young black male victims. This falsehood the media, whose god is lucre, propagates incessantly. Meanwhile, the truth is far more complicated.

Writing about police violence against blacks, according to Smith, “takes up space that could otherwise be used to consider the function of policing or the root causes of racist violence. It leaves no room for new ideas or even real debate.” It “necessarily constricts the questions we are able to ask and degrades the level of discourse.” Finally, in the language of the purest academic cant, Smith despairs: “To participate in this dialogue requires an excavation of black pain for the consumption of a white public.” Cheap and implausible, this series of mere assertions suggests that Smith’s underlying intent is to make blacks seem like endless victims who never do any wrong. If an editor asks you to write about a certain subject, then you can take on the assignment if you wish. If you do, that will mean you write about that subject, as opposed to countless other possible ones. But it doesn’t follow that you can’t write about other subjects (“the questions we are able to ask”), or about ones that you think are more important, elsewhere. Nor is it true that by writing about a certain subject you leave “no room for new ideas or even real debate.” Utterly devoid of substantive support, Smith’s thought is incoherent, paranoid, and melodramatic.

Smith continues:

Perhaps it is ironic that I am writing this for Harper’s Magazine, which has a white editor, a nearly all-white masthead, and a largely white subscriber base. Most essays of this genre…appear in such publications. There are a number of reasons for this, resources chief among them. So the work of black public intellectuals is often shaped by white gatekeepers. White people assign the stories, produce the television segments, and book the radio guests, and they seek out narrative structures they understand….

There is power lost when the oppressor serves as interlocutor…. As a writer, I have spent more time asking white people to see me as human than I have thinking about the world I would like to live in.

This passage is even worse than the previous one. Smith takes it for granted that a mostly white staff and readership are moral evils. But America itself is majority white. Whites have significantly higher mean IQs than blacks, and at the far-right side of the bell curve—that is, the domain of genius—the gap is even greater. It’s largely white people who have founded magazines (I’m currently doing so myself, for example). And as Thomas Sowell, Larry Elder, and other black conservatives have often lamented, black culture is proudly anti-intellectual. Harper’s readers are mostly white, but then so is the readership of Mind, The Hudson Review, Dissent, and of countless other magazines. Nor are white people to blame for black people’s relative lack of interest in these.

Smith’s shoddy way of thinking could be applied to virtually any context, and the result would be equally absurd. To take just one example, both Asians and men are disproportionately represented at Google. Does that mean these groups are “gatekeepers” in some exclusionary sense? No.

Smith lumps his white editors and white readers into the same category that he appears to put all white people, “the oppressor.” This is so ridiculous that one may feel sorry for the man. And yet, how much pity can one have for someone whose self-pity knows no bounds, and who is so contemptible besides?

With his reflexive, unargued-for belief that white editors and white readers constitute moral evils, Smith reveals that it’s he himself who is the racist. Notice the deranged logic of the sentence: “There is power lost when the oppressor serves as interlocutor.” For Smith, engagement with whites, be they editors or readers, is ipso facto a loss of power. What really bothers him, Smith’s reasoning suggests, is not lack of “racial equality,” but lack of black dominance. What he in his status envy takes to be white dominance inspires his resentment, and his response to that feeling is the usual pseudo-moral game: He affects to be righteous, though what he really wants is revenge. Hear him, dear reader, in his principled opposition—how noble and heroic! And indeed, the cheap trick works. After all, why else would anyone read Smith, who is a copy of a copy?

Good writing is not a matter of waxing idealistic, let alone utopian, so a writer who wants to spend time thinking about the world he would like to live in is probably a standard resentment-piper who is simply not worth reading. A writer who, in 21st-century America, spends time asking white people to see him as human is so trite and wrongheaded that he’s lucky to have any readers at all.

“The role of the public intellectual,” says Smith, “is to proffer new ideas, encourage deep thinking, challenge norms, and model forms of debate that enrich our discourse.” It’s a shame he doesn’t practice this belief himself, because Smith’s mind is a bundle of clichés. It’s hardly a surprise when he tells us that “[James] Baldwin…was guilty of centering the narrative of black America around a masculinist idea of freedom.” If he hasn’t yet written a similar sentence about gays and trans people, we may rest assured that this inclusive writer will. One is rather tired of such writing from black male writers, who more and more resemble the hysterical bluestockings who have ruined the humanities and social sciences. A derivative type, Smith merely repeats the rotted ideas of other trendy moralizers. Like Kiese Laymon and Casey Gerald, two writers about whom I wrote last week, Smith’s perpetual subject is race, or rather, himself—for there’s no difference in these cases. Like them, he’s written a memoir. And again like them, his mind was ruined by the dreadful academy.

One sees this at the end of his essay, when Smith quotes an exchange between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde at length. “It is precisely these kinds of dialogues,” he writes, “that white people would rather we did not have.” Such resentment and jargon are quite amusing since today you can open Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and the like leading liberal magazines almost at random and find “precisely these kinds of dialogues.” Many of the people who edit these magazines, and who write for them, are generic ignoramuses, boring idolaters who cannot think without reference to Foucault and Derrida, Said, Butler, and other celebrated windbags and charlatans. They’re forever emphasizing the need to have “a dialogue,” and the many important subjects that, we’re supposed to believe, they aren’t permitted to discuss. It’s all so much posturing. These persons have nothing new or interesting to say. Although not indeed constrained, they dare not write anything their former graduate advisers wouldn’t approve of. If anything, they should pay people to slodge through their dreary works. Theirs is a studied dullness and folly, for Nature herself doesn’t provide such defects. For those, Smith and the canters must thank the expert debasement of the academy.

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