But as the American examination of racism has intensified, one of Mr. Sullivan’s convictions has grown further out of step and more unsettling even to those inclined to disagree agreeably with him.
When The Times published an article as part of its “1619” package last year about how old racist beliefs about Black people’s pain tolerance linger in modern medicine, Mr. Sullivan sent the author, Linda Villarosa, an arch note through her website. She’d written in passing of the stereotype “that Black people had large sex organs,” and he asked whether there was data on sex organs that “show that it is a myth.” She forwarded the email to the project’s leader, Nikole Hannah-Jones, asking if the note might have been a prank. In fact, Mr. Sullivan was up late, and tipsy, in London when he sent it, he told me, and meant it as a kind of “gay joke.”
Ms. Villarosa told me she found it “bizarre” and “unkind” to send a jokey email asking to prove a negative in response to an article about a “corrosive myth that got people killed.”
Then Ms. Hannah-Jones hit him with it on Twitter in the course of a dispute on the 1619 Project.
The flap reminded his colleagues and critics of Mr. Sullivan’s original sin, his decision to put on the cover of the Oct. 31, 1994, New Republic a package titled “Race and I.Q.” The package led with an excerpt from the book “The Bell Curve” by the political scientist Charles Murray and psychologist Richard Herrnstein. They claimed that I.Q. test results are in large part hereditary and reveal differences among races; it produced piles of scientific debunkings. Many — including contributors whom Mr. Sullivan invited to object — saw the piece as a thinly veiled successor to the junk science used to justify American and European racism for decades. Politically, it offered elites an explanation for racial inequality that wasn’t the legacy of slavery, or class, or racism, or even culture, and thus absolved them of the responsibility to fix it. The authors “found a way for racists to rationalize their racism without losing sleep over it,” the political scientist Alan Wolfe wrote in a response in The New Republic.
When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis in May, Mr. Sullivan said, his editors asked him to “be careful,” suspecting that his views on race in America would not be palatable to their audience in that moment, two senior New York employees told me. He decided instead to take the week off from column writing.
In the previous year, Mr. Sullivan had focused his ire on the politics of race and identity, seemingly relishing the chance to challenge what he saw as an increasingly “woke” mainstream media. But “The Bell Curve” excerpt — which Mr. Sullivan always says that he published but did not embrace — lingered over those pieces and framed criticism of him. One fellow writer, Sarah Jones, called him the “office bigot” on Twitter. The new editor of New York, David Haskell, didn’t push him out because of any new controversy or organized staff revolt, the two New York employees said. Instead, the shift in culture had effectively made his publishing of “The Bell Curve” excerpt — and the fact that he never disavowed it — a firing offense, and Mr. Haskell showed Mr. Sullivan the door before the magazine experienced a blowup over race of the sort that have erupted at other publications.
So what does Mr. Sullivan believe about race? On his back porch looking over the bay, Mr. Sullivan said he was frustrated by the most extreme claims that biology has no connection to our lives. He believes, for instance, that Freudian theories that early childhood may push people toward homosexuality could have some merit, combined with genetics.