Dylan Byers, Politico, January 29, 2015
The forthcoming issue of The New Republic–its first since a mass staff shakeup in December–features a cover story by Canadian journalist Jeet Heer about the magazine’s “perceived legacy of racism.”
The 4,000-word article, which was obtained by POLITICO last week, comes in the wake of severe criticism about the magazine’s history of racism, including an essay by The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates that accused the century-old magazine of ignoring or dismissing blacks.
“How do we reconcile the magazine’s liberalism, the ideology that animated the Civil Rights revolution, with the fact that many black readers have long seen–and still see–the magazine as inimical and at times outright hostile to their concerns?” Heer writes in his piece.
“The New Republic owes an accounting to itself, its critics and its readers; an honest reckoning on where it has gone wrong is the necessary first step to figuring out how to do better,” he writes. “How can this magazine–or any legacy institution–come to terms with a blighted legacy on race and transcend it?”
Heer’s cover essay addresses the issues raised by Coates’ piece head-on, though it does not mention the Atlantic author by name. Heer goes through the magazine’s entire history, starting with the 1910s, when TNR’s worldview was “filtered through the magazine’s privileged white writers,” and the Harlem Renaissance, when TNR’s move “toward a more rigorous accounting of racial injustice” was nevertheless “punctuated by a jarring insouciance, particularly in the work of white writers.”
Heer offers a more positive account of the years between 1930 and 1970, when TNR “provided a forum where black writers such as Hubert Harrison, Walter F. White and Wallace Thurman could tackle debates in their community.”
In Heer’s telling, the magazine’s regression into racism comes with the arrival of Martin Peretz, who bought the magazine in 1974 and served as its editor-in-chief from then until 2011. Throughout that time, TNR became what Heer describes as “a bully pulpit for Peretz’s political beliefs,” though he notes that “staff members were given free rein to disagree with him both in private and in public.”
Peretz targeted several minority groups: Arabs, Mexicans–and, of course, African-Americans. TNR attributed the problems of black America “to Jesse Jackson, Marion Barry and anonymous welfare mothers, while largely ignoring deindustrialization and mass incarceration,” Heer writes. “Affirmative action became a regular target, while legacy admission of whites to colleges and universities was rarely discussed. Of course, the competing positions on affirmative action deserved an airing. But to attack affirmative action in a magazine with a staff that was almost entirely white and male was to defend not a principle but a troubling status quo.”
Like Coates, Heer notes a 1996 piece about the Washington, D.C, taxi cab industry by Stephen Glass, the serial fabricator, “that catered to Peretz’s appetite for melodramas illustrating black cultural pathology. The article drew an invidious contrast between hard-working, uncomplaining immigrants who believed in the American dream versus entitled black Americans who spurned honest work (and chased after white women).” Observes Heer: “[I]t’s hard to accept a piece like the above would have been published in a magazine which wasn’t already inclined toward a pernicious view of African-Americans.”
Heer also notes, as Coates does, a 1994 excerpt of “The Bell Curve,” Charles Murray’s and Richard Herrnstein’s “foray into scientific racism, in which the authors asserted differences in IQ among blacks and whites were largely genetic and almost impossible to significantly change.”
“‘The Bell Curve’ was perhaps the most impactful, and unfortunate, example of the magazine’s embrace of racial mythmaking,” Heer writes.
Heer’s final verdict on The New Republic’s legacy on race is mixed: “Whatever the problems had been with the early-20th century New Republic, it published a spectrum of black voices, so readers (both black and white) had a sense of how black America thought about things,” he writes, noting contributors ranging from W.E.B. Du Bois to Henry Louis Gates. And yet, he adds, “this didn’t stop the magazine from trumpeting ‘The Decline of the Black Intellectual’ on its cover in 1995” at a time when “black intellectual life was vibrant,” even if “absent from The New Republic.”
“At its best moments, the magazine has been a beacon of fact-based reporting and a forum for rich debate over racial issues. At its worst periods, the magazine has fallen under the sway of racial theorizing and crackpot racial lore,” Heer concludes.