Sobran, Francis, Derbyshire

The conservative movement has something of a tortured history with race. The movement has to grapple with the fact that conservative icons like William F. Buckley* and Barry Goldwater were, for a time, either openly supportive of segregation or, in the case of Goldwater, thought that the issue was not worth the federal government intervening against the states. And the conservative movement, much like Buckley itself, has come around on the Civil Rights question but still largely disagrees with the left on the contemporary significance of race. Many conservatives today see racism, and especially anti-black racism, as not particularly prevalent and, more importantly, view many accusations of racism as a liberal tactic to silence or marginalize their political opponents. Furthermore, they tend to view many liberal anti-racists as either hypocrites (this is where the Clarence Thomas hearings come in) or self-aggrandizing figures who have quite nasty baggage themselves (Al Sharpton).

All of this is to say that conservatives are totally willing to cast out of their movement those who advocate explicit prejudice. John Derbyshire, the National Review scribe who wrote an infamous column for another website that listed all the reasons why black people are dangerous and ought to be avoided in large numbers, was let go from the magazine yesterday.

What is interesting here is how Derbyshire fits into a tradition of a particular type of conservative who ends up a bit too far in the deep end and has to be let go lest his antediluvian views on race tarnish the whole enterprise he is associated with. Joe Sobran, a longtime friend of William F. Buckley and senior editor at National Review, was let go from the magazine after his isolationism tended into more-or-less explicit antisemitism, along with pointed public criticisms of Buckley. Similarly, Samuel Francis, a former Heritage staffer and Republican senate aid who became a widely read editorial writer for the Washington Times was written out of the movement as he became more and more interested in what Michael Brendan Dougherty described as “the “racial creepiness” racialism of journals like The Occidental Quarterly.”

Both Sobran and Francis continued to write after they were exiled from the mainstream conservative movement, but only at much smaller, like-minded publications (similar to the one where Derbyshire published his infamous screed) or for their own websites. They largely escaped from public notice and only came back onto the scene, as it were, when they died and their respective rises and falls as conservative thought leaders were recounted for a new generation that never knew them except as isolated cranks, and for an older generation that hoped to put the nasty business behind them.

Derbyshire, who is currently undergoing chemotherapy, never reached the prominence and influence of either Francis and Sobran, and so his fall from grace, such as it is, will probably be remembered as more tawdry and embarrassing than tragic.

The conservative dilemma of race, however, will remain.

*Buckley would later fully repudiate his segregationist, states-right stance.