Politics & Policy

Untruth at The New Yorker

A column on the Trayvon Martin case elicits an egregious attack.

It is rare to read an essay in which almost every statement is wrong, but that is the case with “A Sermon on Race from National Review” by one Kelefa Sanneh, appearing on The New Yorker’s website — little more than McCarthyite character assassination in the form of a reply to my column this week on the president’s and the attorney general’s reactions to the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case.

Here we go:

1) Sanneh writes, “Evidently this [Hanson’s] advice, the wisdom of generations, can be summarized in a single sentence: ‘When you go to San Francisco, be careful if a group of black youths approaches you.’”

#ad#That is entirely untrue, and the disingenuous Sanneh knows it. His phrase “summarized in a single sentence” does not characterize what I wrote, which was as follows: “In my case, the sermon — aside from constant reminders to judge a man on his merits, not on his class or race — was very precise. . . . Note what he did not say to me. He did not employ language like ‘typical black person.’ He did not advise extra caution about black women, the elderly, or the very young — or about young Asian, Punjabi, or Native American males. In other words, the advice was not about race per se, but instead about the tendency of males of one particular age and race to commit an inordinate amount of violent crime.”

All that is a single sentence?

2) Pace Sanneh, I did not have to mention John Derbyshire’s essay on race, because long ago I had already objected to it.

Any sober reader can see why I did, and why Derbyshire’s essay was far different from my own: I do not share, inter alia, his thoughts on the relationships between race and IQ and the suggestions of genetic inferiority, and on more than one occasion I objected to his blanket generalizing about all African-Americans. As I wrote of Derbyshire’s essay: “As for Mr. Derbyshire, he surely must have known that what he wrote was way over the line, and, besides, did not follow his own usually rigorous standards of statistical logic. He knows that purported IQ per se is not necessarily proof of competency; if it were, the stellar Steven Chu would be a great cabinet secretary rather than on his way to be the James Watt or Earl Butz of our age. And if crime rates for young, black urban males prove disproportionately high, why would one use them as probable cause not to lend assistance to blacks in general when stuck on the side of the road? That it is statistically iffy to walk alone in downtown Detroit at night is certainly no reason to pass by a black person on the road in dire need of assistance, given the vast majority of blacks are not urban/young/male/with criminal records, and to treat them as if they all were by virtue of their shared race seems not merely wrong and racist, but, to someone of Mr. Derbyshire’s intellect, statistically illogical.”

Again, Sanneh should know all this, but the truth is again at odds with his preconceived purposes.

3) Sanneh is almost comical when he writes that my parents “might have had a chance to drive away” — as if a middle-aged man and his wife, when surrounded by criminals, had the ability to do so, or might be somehow at fault for not being able to do so.

He adds that my father would have been wiser to have told me, “When you go to the big city, bring a gun.”

What sage post facto advice in the post-Zimmerman-trial era!

4) As a good McCarthyite, Sanneh apparently hopes he can assist in some way in having me fired: “And as of Wednesday afternoon, thirty-six hours after publication, Hanson still seems to be employed at National Review.”

In a classic use of guilt by association, he believes that the reader should be outraged that those at VDARE.com and John Derbyshire nodded in approval at something I wrote.

#page#But, of course, the sloppy Sanneh always gets it wrong: They did not really write that they agreed with the essay, only that there were elements, in their view, of irony in it — the use of statistics, for example, to draw practical conclusions on how to navigate in the inner city, which, they believe, gets some fired at National Review and some not. When John Derbyshire writes that, in comparison to himself, I am one of the “wise and good,” I didn’t think even Sanneh could take that sarcasm at face value.

Both VDARE and Derbyshire conveniently omitted the latter’s IQ arguments and his advice to avoid all blacks, even when in need of help. And if Sanneh had done any research at all, he would have quickly discovered that VDARE has been critical of much of what I have written, especially the melting-pot arguments of intermarriage, assimilation, and integration in relation to problems posed by illegal immigration.

#ad#5) Sanneh writes, “Hanson also adds a story from his own life: ‘When I was a graduate student living in East Palo Alto, two adult black males once tried to break through the door of my apartment — while I was in it.’ This sounds terrifying, but it doesn’t really speak to the wisdom of Hanson’s ‘sermon’: if two men are trying to break down your apartment door, you are probably well past the point of social precaution.”

Should we laugh or cry? Sanneh, of course, omits that I mentioned several other similar instances, in addition to that attempted break-in, which formed a basis for reasonable precautions. And what does he mean by the inane “past the point of social precaution”?

Are we not to draw lessons about who assaulted or attempted to assault us, and are we not to use those lessons to avoid future confrontations, because, well, it is already too late when the assailant is breaking down your door?

Of course, there was a reason why I had three locks on the door after the assault, whereas I had had two before, and why I moved from the East Palo Alto neighborhood after the next two attempted muggings. In the world of Sanneh, victims of assaults are, well, sort of culpable: When surrounded by robbers, they can merely “drive away”; when their doors are being broken down, the fools blew it — since it is already “past the point of social precaution.”

6) Sanneh is incapable of assessing data. He does not refute any of the common crime statistics about the disproportionate rates of black crime, but draws illogical conclusions from them: “One hesitates to disagree with ‘too many Americans,’ but research would appear to show something different. Government studies suggest that African-Americans are overrepresented among both offenders and victims, and that much violent crime is interracial. (One study, which looked at nearly thirty years of data, suggested that African-Americans were nearly eight times more likely than whites to commit homicide, and about six times more likely to be victims of it.) It’s strange, then, to read Hanson writing as if the fear of violent crime were mainly a ‘white or Asian’ problem, about which African-Americans might be uninformed, or unconcerned — as if African-American parents weren’t already giving their children more detailed and nuanced versions of Hanson’s ‘sermon,’ sharing his earnest and absurd hope that the right words might keep trouble at bay.”

Examine this infantile, if not racialist, logic: Because blacks are more statistically likely to attack other blacks, Asians and whites should not be concerned that, in common interracial crimes, black male youths are disproportionately the perpetrators. Perhaps Justice Ginsburg could instruct Sanneh about the disturbing implications of his own logic.

Is Sanneh angry that I gave an insensitive sermon on the statistical likelihood of crime or that I failed to note that African-Americans themselves give even “more detailed” versions of it?

Nowhere did I say that fear of violent crime is “mainly a ‘white or Asian’ problem” — only that young African-American inner-city males statistically commit violent crime far out of proportion to their numbers in the population. While most of it is intraracial, much is not — as those two news stories I quoted from San Francisco and Santa Rosa attest. Precisely because African-Americans commit an inordinate number of these violent crimes against other African-Americans, it seemed to me far wiser for the civil-rights community to focus its attention on how to stop that carnage rather than to fixate on the Zimmerman case.

Sanneh may sneer that precautions based on statistics are an “absurd hope,” but savvy advice about where and when not to walk in fact keeps “trouble at bay” for the less sophisticated of all races every evening.

#page#7) The nonsense continues: “But Hanson is wrong to act as if the anguish over Martin’s death is a mere distraction from concerns about crime in black America. This was, in some ways, a freak shooting, but it created an outpouring of mourning and anger inspired, in part, by all the other shootings that have come to seem normal.”

This is incoherent. Sanneh terms the Martin case a “freak shooting.” How then does something atypical create an outpouring of mourning and anger inspired, in part, by all the other shootings that have come to seem normal if not predictable?

Does he mean by “all the other shootings” the 93 percent of African-American homicide victims killed by other African-Americans — on the grounds that a fatal altercation between a Latino of mixed heritage and an African-American suddenly caused understandable outrage over thousands slain annually in our large cities? Or does he mean that Zimmerman prompted “anger” over the 7 percent of African-American homicide victims who were killed by non-African-Americans?

#ad#8) Sanneh writes, “He [Hanson] might find that African-American parents are as worried about their children as he is about his — probably more so.”

I think that is why I used the word “tragedy” in the piece, and why I noted that it is far more likely for African-American parents to lose their children in homicides to African-American perpetrators than to those who resemble George Zimmerman — hence my worry that the civil-rights community fixated on a case that had little to with the conditions responsible for an epidemic of violence among African-American youth.

Finally, I don’t know what Sanneh’s “probably more so” is supposed to mean, but I have a guess that it reflects the disturbing themes of his essay.

*     *     *

Nothing in Sanneh’s attack addressed the chief point I made: Both the president of the United States and the attorney general, who both have an unfortunate history of employing racially insensitive terminology or references (“typical white person,” “punish our enemies,” acted “stupidly,” “my people,” “cowards,” etc.), waded clumsily into a racially charged case — one that is currently under review by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department — in ways that were not only misleading but, in their timing and aims, unethical.

Again, the case had nothing to do with Stand Your Ground laws; George Zimmerman’s mixed ethnic heritage was not a factor in the tragic shooting; and a jury found Zimmerman not guilty of murder or manslaughter.

That the president opined that the son whom he did not have might outwardly have resembled the late Trayvon Martin was about as racially and legally appropriate as if, on the eve of the racially charged O. J. Simpson trial, President Bill Clinton had remarked that the second daughter he never had might have outwardly resembled the slain Nicole Simpson.

In sum, by his distortions and untruths Kelefa Sanneh ended up affirming all that I wrote.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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