Invited Racist Banned at Williams– Was That Right?

When President Adam Falk of Williams College wrote to the campus community on February 18, to say that he was disinviting John Derbyshire, he didn’t offer much explanation.  Derbyshire, who had been invited by students as part of a program called “Uncomfortable Conversations,” was supposed to talk about immigration. Falk said that Derbyshire had “crossed the line” and was guilty of “hate speech.”

The line was apparently written in magic ink that only President Falk could see. The “hate speech” was presumably there to be found if one went looking.  Of course, Derbyshire is semi-famous for having written an essay that advises the children of white parents to avoid black people.  The essay got him fired from the National Review in 2012.  He went on to publish other ill-judged racial provocations in out-of-the-way places.

Related: ‘Uncomfortable Talk’ Censored at Williams

“Hate speech” is one of those phrases that often says more about the person using it than the person who is accused of uttering it.  It might bring to mind crude epithets; perhaps it conjures bullying or incitements to violence; or again, it might bring to mind slander or libel aimed at destroying someone’s reputation. For some, the term is also a way of deprecating opinions they strongly disagree with or even statements of fact that, however much they rest on good evidence, contradict the beliefs of the speaker.  For example, pointing out the 18-year absence of global warming as measured by satellite readings is, in some eyes, “hate speech.”  So is noticing the dramatic disparities between blacks and whites in commission of violent crimes.

To label what someone says as “hate speech” is, of course, to judge that person’s motives.  It is also an attempt to put the content of what the person says outside the bounds of further consideration.  It is a tool, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt might put it, that helps a moral community police its boundaries.  To label someone a purveyor of hate speech is to write him out the deliberations of all right-thinking people.

Is Derbyshire a purveyor of “hate speech”?  That depends on what President Falk meant by it. I wanted to know, so I asked him.  He wrote back and told me, and with his permission, I quote his answer.  He stipulated that I quote it in its entirety, so I will in deference to the spirit of the times, offer a trigger warning:

Related: Princeton Takes a Stand on Free Speech

Are we narrowed down the audience to the insensitive louts who can bear up? Good.  Here goes:

Dear Mr. Wood,

While I am not interested in an extended dialog with the National Association of Scholars regarding matters at Williams College, I am prepared to give a brief response to your question about John Derbyshire’s canceled appearance here. To that end, please see his opinion piece “The Talk: Non-Black Version.” This article was considered so racist by the National Review (no bastion of left-wing orthodoxy, I assure you) that upon its publication the editors severed their association with Derbyshire and refused him further access to their pages. Typical of its content is the following excerpt, in the form of advice to “nonblack” children:/

(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.
(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.
(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).
(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.
(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.
(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.
(10g) Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.
(10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.
(10i) If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.

As for Derbyshire’s views on white supremacy, I would point you to the following passage that appeared on the website VDare:

Leaving aside the intended malice, I actually think ‘White Supremacist’ is not bad semantically. White supremacy, in the sense of a society in which key decisions are made by white Europeans, is one of the better arrangements History has come up with. There have of course been some blots on the record, but I don’t see how it can be denied that net-net, white Europeans have made a better job of running fair and stable societies than has any other group.

Frankly, this is the kind of material I would expect to see distributed by organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Related: What Universities Can Do for Free Speech in 2015

Derbyshire’s rhetoric, as typified in these passages, isn’t the explication of provocative, challenging or contrary ideas. To speak to what I’m sure is a particular concern of the National Association of Scholars, his work on race isn’t remotely scholarly. Derbyshire simply provokes. His racist bile would have added nothing to the complicated and challenging conversations occurring every day on our campus, across a wide range of ideologies and experiences. No educational purpose of any kind would have been served by his appearance at Williams.

I hope this clarifies matters.

Adam F. Falk

President and Professor
Williams College

Full disclosure: I met Derbyshire once in a social setting, but I don’t know him well and have not read any of his books on mathematics or other subjects.  What I do know of him is that he is a man who seems almost to have courted opprobrium.  Those of his writings about race that I have seen make me think of someone absorbed in the pleasure of seeing how close to the edge of the cliff he can stand without falling over.  But he seems to have no real animus towards blacks.  I would describe his writings as misanthropic and heedless.  They are objectively racist, as he clearly believes that races are biologically real and that the differences matter in all sorts of ways.  But if a distinction can be drawn between racist writing and “hate speech,” Derbyshire’s writing might provide the occasion to draw it.  It seems motivated by fear, not hate, and it counsels withdrawal rather than aggression.

I can well imagine that those distinctions wouldn’t satisfy President Falk, but they are important if we want to understand why students invited Derbyshire in the first place.  He is plainly not someone who hurls epithets; bullies people; torments opponents; incites violence; or libels individuals. He just says awful things and tries to defend them as reasonable judgments.

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And many people understand that.  In 2010 the Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA) of the University of Pennsylvania Law School invited Derbyshire to speak on the question, “Should the government play a role in eliminating racial disparities in education and employment?” In his speech Derbyshire stated explicitly his belief “that racial disparities in education and employment have their origin in biological differences between the human races.” The BLSA did not think a line had been crossed: they gave Derbyshire a respectful hearing.

The same could and should have occurred at Williams College.  It didn’t because President Falk was too eager to draw his line.  In the end, he didn’t draw it well.  All we know at this point is that when a speaker appears to President Falk to have engaged in “hannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnte speech,” he is unwelcome at the college.

In “A Guide to Disinvitation,” I’ve tried to disentangle the justifications for free expression from the exceptions.  The essential points: Intellectual freedom is part of the foundation of higher education because it is a precondition of the pursuit of knowledge.  Unless we are willing to hear and consider views contrary to our own, we are on the path to settled orthodoxies and mere doctrines, not the path to intellectual growth, increased understanding, or critical thought.  Free speech is not the be-all and end-all of higher education.  It exists for a purpose:  to enable learning.

And President Falk is right that there is “a line” or a whole set of lines.  He just didn’t find any of them.  Freedom of speech requires civility; commitment to seeking the truth; and recognition of the differences between the course syllabus (which is not ordinarily open for debate) and the speaker on a public platform (who is). Exceptional circumstances might indeed arise where a speaker should be disinvited.  Think of the emissary of a foreign power that is at war with the United States; a terrorist; a wanted criminal; someone about to expose national secrets.  But there no legitimate exceptions based on dislike of the speaker’s opinions no matter how wrong-headed we think those opinions are.

Colleges should lean over backwards to accommodate invited speakers.  Such individuals have a special and limited relation to the college community, which has an obligation to protect them and foster their opportunity to present their views.  We have known this for a very long time, though it seems every generation has to learn it anew.  It isn’t too late, President Falk.  You could be among those to illuminate this principle for today’s generation.  Just re-invite that man and explain why.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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6 thoughts on “Invited Racist Banned at Williams– Was That Right?

  1. In your opinion, is the truth or falsity of what John Derbyshire has written irrelevant to whether or not he is racist? If, for example, it were shown statistically correct that white people are indeed in more danger when surrounded by large groups of blacks than they are when surrounded by whites, Asians and Jews, would he still be a racist? Is my claim that women are on average smaller and physically weaker than men a sexist claim or is it just true? Do you assume Derbyshire’s claims must be false because they are unflattering to blacks? My guess is that you do. If on the other hand you believe the truth or falsity of a statement is relevant to whether it can be classified as ‘racist’, have you actually looked at what the racial crime figures published by the American government? If so, what conclusions did you reach? And if you haven’t bothered to look, why haven’t you? In either case I recommend you cast your eye over the recently published ‘The Color of Crime’ here:

    Regarding John Derbyshire’s comments about the term ‘White Supremacy’ and its alleged KKK associations, which non-white society would you say equals that of present-day white societies? I personally would put only Japan up there, which has rather modelled itself on us (I know, I live there). So if white-run societies are not in some way better (in a merely human rather than objectively mathematical sense), why do so many non-whites want to live in societies run by whites? Why is there no exodus from Sweden to Somalia? And if ‘White Supremacy’ is not the best term to describe people’s preference for white societies, what name would you choose instead? I’m sure it would be a term that mentioned neither skin colour nor any form of superiority, but whether your term would be more accurate rather than simply ‘nicer’ than the one John Derbyshire settled on (rather unwillingly, I thought), I doubt.

    By the way, I’m not sure it’s fair to make people leave their names and email addresses. We live in a world where someone with your views can expect to get a promotion while someone with my views runs the risk of getting fired for expressing them. You will therefore not get many people here with opposing positions to your own, even though they might be out there.

  2. Many colleges have encouraged or demanded that their students accept many ideas without any critical examination. Students must believe diktats about racism, sexism, economic inequality, low wages for women, the injustices of capitalism, and white privilege.

    In effect, these colleges have encouraged their students to be stupid and shallow about examining the ideas that are presented to them.

    It follows that these colleges should protect their students from any unapproved ideas, for fear that they might accept these ideas as uncritically as the approved ones. One never knows.

    At least, the college wants the full four years to allow the jello to set, to give the student an unbending pride in his education, so that he will be invested in not examining his beliefs.

    Motto: Dumbledore College is a fine school. Everything I believe is well supported by what I learned there.

  3. John Derbyshire is a creep without the racist commentary….

    “We have pretty much dismantled our civilization in an effort to accommodate blacks. And still they complain.

    The Ta-Nehisi Coateses, Eric Holders, and Maya Angelous seem, in their impenetrable narcissism, to hear their own voices as the groans of an oppressed race from under the iron heel of White Supremacy.

    Those voices sound to me more like the whining of pampered pets.” – John Derbyshire in 2014.

    1. David Duke is a racist. John Derbyshire is impolitic. Derbyshire states propositions that may be refuted. Refusing to consider the contents of his propositions because it’s just more satisfying to declare them, and him, to be racist, which pronouncement always ends discussions, usually before they have begun, signals no virtue on anyone’s part. It was a black student, after all, who invited Derbyshire to Williams, precisely for the purpose of refuting his propositions. Instead, we got the Williams president announcing ex cathedra: “The understanding I came to of his writing was that it was simply racist ranting, with no redeeming intellectual value whatsoever.” Good thing he’s an administrator and not a teacher.

    2. “I would describe his writings as misanthropic and heedless. They are objectively racist, as he clearly believes that races are biologically real and that the differences matter in all sorts of ways. But if a distinction can be drawn between racist writing and “hate speech,” Derbyshire’s writing might provide the occasion to draw it. It seems motivated by fear, not hate, and it counsels withdrawal rather than aggression. . . . He is plainly not someone who hurls epithets; bullies people; torments opponents; incites violence; or libels individuals. He just says awful things and tries to defend them as reasonable judgments.”

      I think this is an excellent statement, although even here the words “heedless,” “awful” and “tries to defend” seem tendentious. But this definition of racism, while correct, is not its definition in popular political discourse. By this definition, black writers are equally racist (I put aside the vagueness of the “biologically real” criterion), but because the term is no longer meant to be descriptive but pejorative and politically effective in its pejorativity (yeah I made that up), they must deny the charge by free invention (e.g., “blacks cannot be racists because they have no power”).

      It seems to me that black writers not only say but insist that race is real and that it matters, and Derbyshire, though impolitic, appears to be attempting to treat such claims seriously, directly, unevasively and, perhaps most importantly, evidentially, a treatment evidenced by the fact that black students themselves have been inviting him to speak at their schools. I don’t believe they have extended such invitations to, say, David Duke.

      1. Yes. Both comments exactly on target.

        The Derbyshires of the world must be listened to, if only to separate wheat from chaff. He is racist only in the literal sense of speaking directly about race (which regardless of its biological/genetic truth (which itself still seems debatable) is clearly a sociological/political/anthropological reality)….and his propositions, though thorny, cannot and should not be dismissed out of hand simply because they’re anti-doctrinaire and exceedingly uncomfortable.

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