Sep 1 1994

Double Your Standard

Repudiation, Forgiveness and Martin Peretz

Martin Peretz said blacks had “cultural deficiencies” at a March 21 breakfast hosted by the American Jewish Committee. With minimal differences in phrasing, his remarks were subsequently reported in both Newsday (3/22/94) and the Washington Post (3/28/94).

It seemed to me a good opportunity to play the “blanket condemnation” game in reverse. We’re all familiar with the ritual: A black person says something offensive to the ears of polite white opinion and every notable in the African-American political community is pressed to issue a sharp statement of reproof.

It’s a form of social discipline which doesn’t often work the other way round. When South Carolina Sen. Ernest Hollings said that “potentates from down in Africa” attend conferences in Geneva in the hopes of getting a square meal “rather than eating each other,” his senatorial colleagues for the most part exhibited a sense of tolerance and understanding of the errant ways of the South Carolinian.

So here we had the editor-in-chief of the New Republic, a noted opinion former, remarking that “so many in the black population are afflicted by…cultural deficiencies,” adding further that a lot of black mothers don’t care about their children’s schooling. After protest by Kweisi Mfume, leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, Peretz said he intended no slight and couldn’t understand why Mfume was offended.

Imagine if Mfume had said at the breakfast that so many in the Jewish population had cultural deficiencies, with illustrative material.

I tried to find out how many of Peretz’s fellow editors and opinion formers were ready to acknowledge and repudiate his racism. My colleague at the Nation, Steven Dudley, phoned or faxed Peretz’s remark as reported in the Washington Post to the editors of Tikkun, Dissent, the Public Interest, the National Interest, the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Monthly, New York, Commentary, Democratic Left, the Wilson Quarterly, The Partisan Review, Jewish Forward, National Catholic Reporter, Time, Newsweek and Vanity Fair, as well as to Mary McGrory, Richard Cohen, William Buckley, William Safire, A.M. Rosenthal, Meg Greenfield, Lally Weymouth, Anthony Lewis, David Broder, Anna Quindlen, Roger Wilkins and Cornel West.

By the time that week’s edition of the Nation went to press we’d heard from Tikkun, Democratic Left and the Wilson Quarterly. Michael Lerner of Tikkun described Peretz’s remark as reprehensible and said, “I’ve done more than repudiate him; I’ve explicitly attacked him.” Alan Chamey of Democratic Left said of the remark, “It has political implications which are historically racist in character.”

Hopping about a bit, Jay Tolsen of the Wilson Quarterly allowed as how “the phrasing is careless, but I think that ifs not racist…. If he had said they were afflicted by genetic deficiencies, that would be racist.”

At the end of that first week there wasn’t another substantive squeak from any editor.

In the end, most of the editors never did respond to our faxes and messages. Mitchell Cohen of Dissent made a great to-do of the fact that the quote in Newsday was marginally different and in fact marginally worse than the Post‘s report which we had first sent him. This scholarly scrupulosity was shared by Tina Brown of the New Yorker: “Your note does not include a hint of a context for the (obviously very incomplete) quotation and paraphrase you attribute to Martin Peretz. It is therefore impossible to offer an opinion.”

Pecksniffery was taken to its richest state by Dissent‘s Cohen:

I am quite willing to denounce racism expressed by Jews or anyone else, no less than anti-Semitism by blacks or anyone else–when and if appropriate [his emphasis]. But our exchanges leave me mistrustful as to whether I would be quoted accurately and I will not chance being misrepresented in my views on these issues. I might be prepared to address them in article form at a later date but not within these circumstances.

In contrast to this blather, at least Commentary‘s Norman Podhoretz was to the point. The great man said through his secretary that “the reason he hasn’t commented is that he wishes to have nothing to do with the Nation.”

Probably the most careful response was from Thomas Fox, editor of the National Catholic Reporter:

It seems to me Martin Peretz’s remarks were, at the least, insensitive, and also puzzling…. It is shocking to hear someone speak of “cultural deficiencies.” By whose standards? The remark smacks of arrogance. Most of us are sadly too quick to ascribe the accusatory “racist” label to someone or to someone’s statements. I would be reluctant to do so, especially receiving information secondhand and not having been exposed to the broader context of the remarks.

And so to the famous “broader context.” Here is a transcript of the relevant portion of the exchange at the breakfast, made by my Nation colleague JoAnn Wypijewski from a tape supplied by the AJC. Juan Williams is a columnist for the Washington Post.

Juan Williams: I heard a woman on talk radio here in Washington, a Jewish woman, call up the station and said something to the effect that, “What do they want us to do—apologize for being successful?” And it spoke to this notion that somehow there are people that have worked very hard and made sacrifices to educate men-children and in fact might even recommend that to the black community but do not feel in any way that they should be held responsible for those issues—

PERETZ: And their recommendation of that as a way of life would really be empty, because so many people in me black population are afflicted by deficiencies—and I mean cultural, cultural deficiencies—which Jews, for example, didn’t have.

WILLIAMS: What do you mean, “cultural deficiencies”?

PERETZ: Uh, I would guess that in the ghetto, mothers—a lot of mothers don’t appreciate the importance of schooling; that a lot of mothers actually are threatened by their children—

KWEISI MFUME: Oh, I disagree with that. You can’t really believe that. Every mother wants the best for their child, whether they are in poverty or whether they’re better off. They want the best for their children.

PERETZ: Every mother of course wants the best for their children, but a mother who is on crack is in no position to help her children get through school.

WILLIAMS: But that’s not typical, Marty.

PERETZ: But is there a significant number?

WILLIAMS: There’s a number, Marty, but it’s nowhere near what you would say is emblematic.

PERETZ: Is that a significant number in the ghetto?

WILLIAMS: I would say that any mother on crack is significant to me, but it’s not significant in terms of this conversation, talking about broad demographic [inaudible] that would make you sufficiently competent to say that the level of education or the interest in education on the part of black mothers is somewhat different from what it is among Jewish mothers.

MODERATOR: Let me jump in here just to do a sensitivity check…. [To Mfume:] Did that strike you as a racist comment?

MFUME: It struck me as a comment that had absolutely no basis for understanding our community…. The suggestion was, as Mr. Williams said, that somehow African-American women who have children care less about them and the important education for their children than Jewish parents do…. It’s an insult—first thing. Second of all, how could you say that and not understand how deeply it cuts?…

MODERATOR: But would you grant him the point that there is a crisis of family within the black community and a crisis of family which the Jewish community did not experience to the same dimension?

MFUME: I would grant the fact [that] it is clear that after 200 years of slavery, chattel slavery, and then another 100 years of separate and unequal, that one would have to expect that people growing up in those kinds of conditions will be facing different kinds of sociological conditions, and it will be reflected oftentimes in the family.

PERETZ: …It seems to me that a population, 67 percent of whose children are born into single-parent families, is a population which in large number is culturally deficient. It burdens its children. Children cannot—I mean, I don’t need to lecture either of you about this; you know this better than I, I suspect, that when a child is brought up with one parent instead of two, with five siblings instead of one, in our period of history, that child carries many more burdens than a child who has .8 siblings, has two parents, where the education level is higher. I mean, that was the obvious point I was trying to make.

WILLIAMS: Well, I wouldn’t describe that as a cultural deficiency, though. I would say that’s a socio-economic deficit to be born into that community. I would say that’s a difficulty, but—

PERETZ: But it’s an enormous difficulty; it’s a defining difficulty, Juan, isn’t it?

WILLIAMS: I don’t know that it’s defining…. I came from a single-parent family. My mother was very poor, as a garment worker in New York, and education was absolutely at a premium for her. Luckily, at that time New York City public schools were sufficiently good that she could educate those kids in the public arena. I’m not sure that a mother living in Washington, D.C., today could say the same thing.