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Book critic wins cancel culture showdown

Culture | Carlin Romano refuses to plead guilty to systemic racism
by Megan Basham
Posted 9/01/20, 05:11 pm

After months of infighting at the National Book Critics Circle, a member who refused to endorse an anti-racism statement will keep his seat on the board of directors—for now.

Established in 1974, the NBCC is one of the country’s most prominent and influential literary organizations. Its annual awards ceremony receives wide coverage in the mainstream media, and winners often end up on bestseller lists.

In early June, the organization followed countless other cultural institutions and drafted a statement to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The statement claimed the NBCC benefited from white supremacy. It called on members to “admit [their] culpability in this system of erasure” and commit to a new social justice initiative led by a diversity and inclusion committee. Vice President of Grants Carlin Romano took issue with the statement.

Romano is a professor, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and longtime book critic who’s no stranger to high-profile literary skirmishes. A fellow critic once described him as “half philosopher, half gonzo journalist,” his literary heroes, “more Harlem than Harvard.” When legal scholar Jonathan Turley wrote a blog post about him, Romano sent Turley a thank you message that included a long list of Turley’s grammatical errors.

When NBCC board President Laurie Hertzel requested feedback on a draft of the anti-racism statement, Romano replied that the idea that “white gatekeeping stifles black voices at every level of our industry” was “absolute nonsense.” He dismissed accusations of systemic racism in the publishing industry, saying, “Many of the writers cited in the letter’s own list would never have been published if not for ecumenical, good-willed white editors and publishers who fought for the publication of black writers.” He also cited census numbers to cast doubt on arguments that NBCC prize lists underrepresent minority authors.

Hertzel said she found Romano’s objections valid, angering board members who initiated the statement. They posted screenshots of the internal conversations to social media. The statement’s main author, Ugandan American writer Hope Wabuke, announced her departure from the organization for her personal safety. “It is not possible to change these organizations from within, and the backlash will be too dangerous for me to remain,” she tweeted. Within a few days, more than half the board, including Hertzel, had resigned.

In the weeks that followed, the board scheduled a special meeting to vote on Romano’s future as a member. His opponents launched a petition asking his employer, the University of Pennsylvania, to fire him. NPR characterized his comments as racist. The NBCC posted information on its website about calls to remove him—all to no effect. “It became clear that Carlin cannot be made to leave the board—he is shameless,” said Ismail Muhammad, a fellow critic who helped write the NBCC statement. “At this point, he is sitting on a throne of skulls.”

To Romano, refusing to give in was a matter of honor. And liberty.

“I’m not racist and I’m not anti-black. … I just don’t check my mind at the door when people used to operating in echo chambers make false claims,” he told the website Vulture in a statement. “In my opinion, they oppose true critical discussion. Good riddance to any of them who resign—the NBCC will be healthier without them. I’ll attempt to stay on the Board, despite concerted opposition, in the hope that I can help NBCC return to its earlier, better self.”

Romano sent out mass emails lobbying on his own behalf. He made it known he would drag the issue out in court, warning, “I have lots of energy for this, and it will cost me nothing.” Free speech organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education publicly backed him.

“An organization nominally devoted to literary expression, NBCC should be interested in preserving a culture of free speech,” FIRE wrote days before the vote. “And whatever structural decisions it makes with respect to its board rules or makeup, it has started down this course because some of its members want to punish Romano for his questions.”

Whether by threats or appeals to intellectual freedom, Romano’s tenacity paid off. On Aug. 24, 62 percent of voting NBCC members elected to remove him, just shy of the two-thirds majority required.

Still, new NBCC President David Varno implied Romano’s fate remained uncertain, sending out an email saying Romano is already “on notice” for violating a new code of conduct that is being drafted.

After learning he’d won the vote, Romano expressed gratitude for his supporters who “understood that you don’t cancel a fellow critic because you disagree with him.” And he acknowledged that while he won the battle, the war might not be over.

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Megan Basham

Megan is film and television editor for WORLD and co-host for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All. Megan resides with her husband, Brian Basham, and their two daughters in Charlotte, N.C. Follow her on Twitter on @megbasham.

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  • JerryM
    Posted: Tue, 09/01/2020 08:25 pm

    “I’m not racist and I’m not anti-black. … I just don’t check my mind at the door when people used to operating in echo chambers make false claims,” 

    Well done to Carlin for speaking out, trying to reason with his colleagues and standing his ground.  
    Amazingly, but not surprisingly, the tax-payer funded NPR joined the fray on what, again, appears to be another mob attack on those with divergent views.

  • SamIamHis
    Posted: Wed, 09/02/2020 08:49 am

    Romano has become a hero in my book..  Here is a man who still think clearly and is unafraid to say what is true during a episode of freakish disassociation from facts in our culture!

  • Greysmoke
    Posted: Wed, 09/02/2020 09:23 am

    So... how can one already be "on notice" for "violating a new code of conduct that is being drafted"? [Emphasis added.] How about finalizing and distributing the new code of conduct as a next step, before accusing members of being violators? Does anyone else remember "double secret probation"? I used to think it was comedic. Now....

    Posted: Wed, 09/02/2020 10:02 am

    How dare he tell the emperor he has no clothes!!

  •  dcsfoyle's picture
    Posted: Wed, 09/02/2020 10:32 am

    "Whether by threats or appeals to intellectual freedom, Romano’s tenacity paid off. On Aug. 24, 62 percent of voting NBCC members elected to remove him, just shy of the two-thirds majority required."

    The link shows that they elected not to remove him.

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Wed, 09/02/2020 10:03 pm

    I continue to be stunned at the level of, I guess, indoctrination so many elites have right now. Does this Ugandan American truly feel unsafe? Or is it a show? How could she have felt safe before the statement? How could a successful writer like that be so utterly ignorant? Mind-boggling.

  • Janet B
    Posted: Thu, 09/03/2020 02:47 pm

    I read the link to the article on the vote.  The thing that struck me the most was that in the proxy votes - those who just sent in a ballot and didn't attend in person, and thus did not have to endure any personal attacks - the majority vote was not to remove Mr. Romano.   I suppose it is much easier to vote your conscious when not being called names for doing so.