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Doing Justice to the Classics

Re-purposing Classical Analogies to Support Racism

In 2013 Charlie LeDuff published Detroit: An American Autopsy, examining the history and causes of Detroit’s transformation from a center of industry and culture to what LeDuff calls “an archaeological ruin.” A review of the book on, a racist and xenophobic site that Pharos has documented previously, complains that LeDuff was not willing to name the real cause of Detroit’s problems, which, according to VDare, should be blamed on “black empowerment” and the “black undertow” that “erodes the fabric of civilization wherever it touches.” This racist review came to the attention of Pharos because the reviewer calls special attention to analogies that LeDuff makes in his book between Detroit, Rome, and the ancient city of Pompeii.

LeDuff’s book reflects what a different review called his “civic outrage” at the plight of the city, and this outrage leads him to compare present-day Detroit to the ancient city of Pompeii, which was destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE: “The streets were empty and cratered. The skyscrapers were holograms. I stood and admired a cottonwood sapling growing out of the roof of the Lafayette Building. This was like living in Pompeii, except the people weren’t covered in ash. We were alive” (174 – 175).

Whereas LeDuff makes no reference to the fall of Rome and clearly intends Rome to symbolize an "eternal city," for VDare it symbolizes a city in ruins

LeDuff’s analogy between Detroit and Pompeii seems intended only to evoke an image of a ruined city, not to explain its destruction, but the VDare review reinterprets this classical reference through a racist lens: “Detroit is analogous to Pompeii in that it was the explosion of violence in the 1967 Black Rebellion which drove whites out of Detroit” (referring to the 1967 riots in response to discrimination and segregation in the city).

The VDare review then connects LeDuff’s reference to Pompeii to another classical reference (more than 100 pages later in the book) where LeDuff writes that “Detroit, I am sure, will continue to be. Just as Rome does” (282). The reviewer turns what LeDuff surely meant as a passing comparison into the  key to understanding the history of Detroit: in keeping with the common xenophobic view that Rome was, as this post puts it, “a city that was sacked by the Vandals and Goths and withered under the barbarians,” the review argues that African Americans who moved to Detroit after World War 2 seeking economic opportunity (and attempting to escape discrimination) should be understood as modern-day “barbarians” because “like the Huns…which overwhelmed the Roman Empire” they “snuffed out white civilization” in Detroit. This designation of American citizens as “barbarians” is underpinned by the reviewer’s willingness to make three culturally and historically distinct groups — Vandals, Goths, and Huns — into symbols of barbarism. And whereas LeDuff makes no reference to the fall of Rome and in fact clearly intends Rome to symbolize, as it does for many, an “eternal city,” for VDare, as for many xenophobes, it symbolizes a city in ruins.

The reviewer clearly believes that ancient Roman history naturally and automatically supports his racist agenda

The racism of the review is evident at every turn, as it argues that the “black people [who] have wielded more power in Detroit for a longer period of time than anywhere else in America” have “reforged Detroit into the closest approximation in North America to black civilization as it exists elsewhere in the world.” Even if, the review allows, Detroit has not “descend[ed] yet to the level of Kingston or Johannesburg,” the “trademarks” of such places are, according to the review, evident in Detroit as proof that African Americans are to blame: “violent crime, corruption, ethnic nepotism, failing schools, low property value, racial chauvinism, … blighted homes, ruined train stations, religious cults, the demoralization of the white minority, white businessmen in search of public contracts bribing the black Establishment, and a decaying and cannibalized infrastructure.” This line of argument, that higher rates of poverty and corruption among non-white populations should be attributed to their inferiority to white people, rather than (as experts in international development agree) to structural inequality and institutionalized discrimination, is common among proponents of pseudo-scientific racism. This intellectual affiliation is further evident in the review’s citation of the work of white supremacist Paul Kersey, whose racist reaction to the casting of a black actor to play Achilles Pharos has documented.

It is striking that out of the 300 pages of LeDuff’s book, the VDare review singles out these two classical references as “the closest Charlie LeDuff gets to telling the truth about what happened to Detroit in the entire book.” The review’s version of “truth” is hardly worthy of the name, and its interpretation of LeDuff’s references to antiquity are gross distortions of what LeDuff seems to have intended by them, yet the reviewer clearly believes that ancient Roman history naturally and automatically supports his racist agenda and that LeDuff’s few mentions of antiquity provide the most effective opportunity for him to articulate his hateful account of Detroit’s modern history. features advertisements and we have linked above to archive images of the review in order to avoid generating revenue for the site. The original review is here.

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