Did a Law Professor Assert That a Solar Eclipse Was ‘Racist’?

Two conservative web sites grossly misrepresented the content of a lyric essay in The Atlantic magazine.

  • Published 21 August 2017
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Claim

Law professor Alice Ristroph wrote in the Atlantic magazine that the 2017 solar eclipse, its path, or those who viewed it, were "racist."

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Origin

In August 2017, two right-wing web sites falsely reported that a law professor had written that a 2017 solar eclipse was “racist.”

First, the Daily Caller published an article headlined “The Eclipse Is Racist Because It Fails to Affect Enough Black People, the Atlantic Suggests,” stating that “The Atlantic, a once-great magazine, has determined that the total eclipse of the sun due to occur on Monday will fail to affect enough black people.”

The following day, the Conservative Tribune asserted in a similar vein: “Are you looking forward to Monday’s solar eclipse — the first full eclipse to hit the United States in decades? You filthy, filthy racist. That’s at least the take of Brooklyn Law School professor Alice Ristroph, who used a staggering 4,544 words in The Atlantic to explaining why the phenomenon of the moon blocking the sun just wasn’t diverse enough for her tastes.”

Both web sites were referring to an essay by Alice Ristroph, a professor at Brooklyn Law School in New York. Her essay, originally published in Democracy under the title “Blackout,” and republished by the Atlantic on 18 August 2017, did not state — or even imply — that the eclipse itself or the path of its totality were “racist.” Nor did Ristroph say or imply that the eclipse would not be visible to “enough” black people, or that those who chose to view the eclipse were “racists.”

Instead, Ristroph penned a lyric essay that used the path of the eclipse as a literary mechanism to explore the United States’ troubled racial history of “totality” and “division.” In noting that the path of the eclipse would cross sections of the United States in which there lived “almost no black people,” Ristroph was clear to state that this circumstance was a coincidence (from an astronomical standpoint) but used that fact as an opportunity to examine the historical reasons why some areas of America remain predominantly non-black. Along the way, she discussed different visions of “totality,” such as Oregon’s original goal of being an all-white state, and General William Tecumseh Sherman’s vision of “total war” during the U.S. Civil War.

At no point did Ristroph use the word “racist,” and she explicitly made the (blindingly obvious) point that the eclipse itself did not harbor any racial prejudice:

It has been dubbed the Great American Eclipse, and along most of its path, there live almost no black people. Presumably, this is not explained by the implicit bias of the solar system. It is a matter of population density, and more specifically geographic variations in population density by race, for which the sun and the moon cannot be held responsible … The shadow of the moon doesn’t care where it falls or who lives below.

In 2015, the Daily Caller similarly prevaricated about a New York Times opinion piece on the subject of low visitation rates at national parks by minorities. Under the headline “Now America’s National Parks Are Racist,” the Daily Caller wrote:

The cozily white opinion pages of The New York Times attacked the National Park Service and America’s majestic national parks as racist because way too many white people visit them.

Also, the visitors are old. And about 80 percent of the park service’s employees are white.

Thus, “minorities are unwelcome.”

One again, the Daily Caller completely misrepresented the thrust of a race-related discussion. The New York Times article in question, by Glenn Nelson, did not decry either America’s national parks or the National Park Service as being “racist,” nor did that word appear anywhere in Nelson’s piece.

The gist of Nelson’s article was that attendance at U.S. national parks by minorities was comparatively low, that a primary reason for that phenomenon was unfamiliarity with national parks among minorities, and that the National Park Service should try to encourage broader visitation through outreach aimed at clearing up such unfamiliarity.

Nelson did not assert, as the Daily Caller misrepresented, that “minorities are unwelcome” at U.S. national parks. In fact, he argued the opposite — that the National Park Service should attempt to dispel the misperception among minorities that they were not welcome at national parks:

[M]any minorities say they know little about the nation’s parks or what to expect when visiting them. In the 2011 park service survey, nonwhites were more than three times as likely as whites to say that the parks provided poor service and were not safe to visit.

And those responses were from nonvisitors, which means that perceptions had congealed into reality among what should be an important constituency for the parks.

We need to demolish the notion that the national parks and the rest of nature are an exclusive club where minorities are unwelcome.

The park service[‘s] … outreach should be tailored to minorities and delivered where they log in, follow, Tweet, view or listen. The park service needs to shout to minorities from its iconic mountaintops, “We want you here!”

On 12 January 2017, President Barack Obama took up that suggestion, issuing a memorandum on “Diversity and Inclusion in Our National Parks” that directed federal agencies (among other actions) to engage in conducting “active outreach to diverse populations” and “identifying and making improvements to existing programs to increase visitation and access by diverse populations” — “particularly minority, low-income, and disabled populations and tribal communities.”