Thursday, May 10, 2007

"Bookstore Ghettoes"

The way that some bookstores carve out "special" sections for black authors has always irritated me because it seems so condescending both to the authors and to black readers. Whether the bookstore manager realizes it or not, a subtle message is being sent that only black readers will be interested in these books and that black readers really aren't interested in reading anything but books written by black authors. I wondered how the authors themselves felt about being partitioned into their own little ghetto. Thomas Sowell, "A Man of Letters" author, addresses the practice today in his column.

If Rachael Ray had been black, there are bookstores where her cookbook would not be displayed in the same section with all the other cookbooks. It would be displayed off in a special section for black authors.

This means that many people who were looking for cookbooks would not even see Rachael Ray's cookbook, much less buy it.

This is not rocket science but it seems to have escaped the notice of those publishers who supply racial information on their authors, thereby jeopardizing sales of their own books.
This is only one of many examples of how much this generation -- especially the "educated" part of it -- has let symbolism over-ride substance. With just a moment's thought, anyone whose IQ is not in single digits would see the absurdity of the idea of losing book sales for the sake of symbolism. But the real problem is that so many people today don't stop and think when they are being swept along by some fashionable notion. The notion of honoring black ("African American") writers with a special section in bookstores is just one of innumerable fashionable symbolic notions that ignore consequences.
I have to believe that Sowell is entirely correct to say books that are segregated this way sell fewer copies than they would have sold if they had been simply shelved with all the other books of their type. I've walked past sections filled exclusively with the work of black authors numerous times because I made the simple, and wrong, assumption that the books were grouped that way because they were of interest only to black readers. That's the message I received from the bookstore.

I wonder if this is a practice only in United States bookstores. I don't recall ever noticing anything like this in the dozens of U.K. bookstores that I spent countless hours in and I've been in too few Canadian bookstores to know if they follow the policy. I have long found "political correctness" to be one of the great irritants in my life because of the harm it causes to the very groups being "protected" by the silliness, so it's good to see one of its victims speak up like this.


  1. Where I work has an African American section, but it's African American history and cultural studies. The black fiction authors are in fiction, the black cookbook authors are in cookbooks, etc.

    I agree that's the way it should be, but I have had black customers come in and be annoyed that they had to go through the entire fiction section to find their authors. I wonder if they feel they should be separated or if they're just used to it being that way.

  2. One other comment - I can't imagine how annoying this would be for the booksellers - shelving would take longer because you'd have to go to two different sections. Every time a customer asked for a book by so-and-so, you'd have to ask, "Is that author black?" which I think would be odd, or you'd walk over to cookbooks, not find it, and then have to walk over to thte other section, therby appearing incompetent. From a personal, professional standpoint, it seems just as stupid as from a racial standpoint.

  3. I agree with you Sam. I've always found it annoying and strange that all of the African-American books are separated from the other books. I'd wonder, if a bookstore was going to be silly enough to put African-American books in a whole different section, then where's the Jewish-American section, or the Irish-American section, or the Chinese-American section? It does seem to send the subtle message that black writers aren't capable of appealing to audiences wider than those in their own race, which is just wrong. Martin Luther King once said, "I dream of a day when my children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Perhaps bookstores should work to apply the same philosophy to their book sections...

  4. Anne, I can understand the the two "black" sections that you mentioned, and those are fine with me. After all, I head straight to the Civil War history section of every bookstore knowing exactly what I'm going to find there and it saves me lots of time.

    Good grief, I can't believe that any black customer would complain because black writers haven't been segregated on the shelves. That's extremely narrow minded and I do wonder if they are thinking of all the implications of their complaint. I doubt it.

    Yeah, I'd hate to be a bookseller in a bookstore that took this concept to heart. It would never be worth all the extra effort required on both ends of the sale and everyone comes out the loser.

  5. J.S., that's what I find the oddest about all of this. If a bookstore is going to segregate one group of writers from the rest, how can it stop there? Is it special treatment? Is it discrimination for the wrong reasons? It all comes down to the perceptions of their individual customers, I suppose.

    I do think that if I were black that I would be terribly offended by something like this...and would shop elsewhere if the policy weren't changed.

  6. I have more than a few black friends who are offended. One of them refuses to shop at Borders for that very reason. We've had discussions on this and it seems that while my friends can see how narrow-minded it is, others see the black book section as a source of pride and that rejecting the black book section is very much like rejecting their identity. In my experience, most blacks see this for the idiotic argument it is but unfortunately, it seems the idiots always seem to talk the loudest and make everybody look bad.

  7. That makes me wonder if Borders would ever dare do away with the black authors section. They seemed to have painted themselves into a corner on this one.

  8. Would they tear books by biracial authors in half?