Posted on April 12, 2012

What We Write Matters

Dilan Thampapillai, ABC, April 12, 2012

If there was ever a perfect example of why Australia needs racial vilification laws it would have to be John Derbyshire’s article advising his children to avoid African Americans.

John Derbyshire was a writer for the National Review, a prominent conservative magazine. His article, which was published in another magazine, ignited a storm of controversy in the United States.

If you can bring yourself to read the article, then consider the following questions:

How would an African American child feel if they read that article?

How would an African American parent or any other African American person or anyone of African descent or origin feel if they read that article?

Why did Derbyshire write and publish it?

I think it’s worth pointing out that speech acts do not occur in a vacuum. Our writings are not just read by the people who agree with our views. Once a piece of writing is posted on the internet it is out there and it has the capacity to harm.

Speech is after all multi-faceted. We can fashion and tailor our speech to persuade, impress, critique, ridicule and yes — even to discourage and intimidate.

Why did John Derbyshire write the article? Ostensibly, he wrote it to give his children his version of ‘the talk’ that African American parents have with their children. As some other writers have pointed out that ‘talk’ is also given by Afro-Caribbean parents in the UK. I suspect that a version of it might also be given by Aboriginal parents in Australia.

In the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s shooting there has been discussion about ‘the talk’ in the United States.

The talk is about how to behave when confronted by police officers or other authority figures. The talk has a special resonance in the United States given the number of incidents in which African American youths and men have been shot by police. Over-policing together with the incidence of ‘visible crime’ given their status as a visible minority where criminal activity by African Americans is concerned, has had an unfortunate flow-on effect onto many young African American males. It has resulted in some fatal incidents.

I also come from a visible minority. We have certainly talked about racism in the home, but I cannot recall hearing any version of ‘the talk’. I don’t think that any of my relatives or my white or non-white friends has heard it either. It is tragic that some families have to have this discussion.

If John Derbyshire wanted to give his children ‘the talk’ he could have done it at home and in private. He didn’t do that. He did it publicly via an opinion piece on an internet periodical called Taki’s Magazine because he wanted to share his thoughts with a wider audience. He would have known that some people would be receptive to his views. He would have known that his words would hurt some people. So why publish them? He wanted his words to have effect. To persuade, impress, reinforce existing beliefs, ridiculediscourage and intimidate.

In his article, Derbyshire spends a substantial amount of time talking about the intelligence of African Americans. His remarks are crude, he uses facts out of context and his tone is downright insulting. He makes no mention whatsoever of the history of race relations in the United States or the systemic problems that substantially explain the lower socio-economic status of many African Americans.

Derbyshire’s article is out there and it will do harm. I asked the question about how an African American child would feel if they read it because as someone who works in a university I know that success in education depends greatly on confidence. Amongst other things, Derbyshire’s article is designed to insult, intimidate and very seriously dent the confidence of any African American.

Confidence is crucial in the context of education. Students go through vulnerable periods during their development in high school and at university. How they perform during these times can often be a reflection of their self-esteem.

Put yourself in the shoes of an African American parent. Obviously, they would be offended, but surely the sentiment would be more than ‘mere offence’. Derbyshire’s article is basically saying that no matter what their child does, he thinks they won’t succeed, and even if they do succeed, his children won’t be offering them a genuine friendship on an equal basis. Maybe Derbyshire’s opinion doesn’t matter. Maybe his children don’t share his views.

Yet, Derbyshire would have written his article knowing that there is a demographic that is receptive to his views. A demographic that is hostile and threatening to varying degrees to African Americans and others. This is a demographic whose prejudices would have been affirmed and supported by the article. Sooner or later they will act on their prejudices because they feel that they are valid. It might not be an act of violence like the shooting of Trayvon Martin, but it will be something. It might be an act of discrimination, a job application tossed in a bin or a callous remark. Whatever it is it will cause distrust and loosen social bonds.

Derbyshire cannot be sued in the United States. The First Amendment protects articles like Derbyshire’s under the guise of free speech. Not that the right to free speech has ever been extended evenly in the United States. Racists have long enjoyed protection but their opponents such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and a host of civil rights activists certainly were not afforded an unimpeded free speech right by all of their countrymen.

At least in Australia we have laws that provide a right of action where serious racist speech is concerned. These laws in the Racial Discrimination Act are not criminal laws. They are personal injury laws that treat racist speech as type of cause of legal action that is akin to defamation. The distinction is crucial. Breaking criminal laws means that you might go to jail. Being found liable under the RDA might entail damages, which in the case of the RDA are modest, but you won’t lose your liberty.

Derbyshire’s article widely condemned from all sides of politics. He was eventually fired from the National Review. Free speech commentators might say that this is enough and justice was done. They will ignore the fact that the people who have been harmed by Derbyshire’s article don’t have a means of direct redress against him. I can certainly agree that his firing is some measure of justice. Yet, Derbyshire is getting off lightly.

Speech isn’t meaningless. If it was then none of us would bother writing opinion pieces. We have to be accountable — that’s good citizenship.