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Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote an offensive, poorly reasoned column about racial profiling. In 1986. And also this week. And once or twice or let’s say perhaps a dozen additional times in the interim. The occasion of this week’s installment of “Richard Cohen explains why black men should be treated as second-class citizens for the safety of us all, which is to say rich old white men” is the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Cohen is very sorry that Martin is dead due to Zimmerman incorrectly assuming him to be a criminal of some sort based solely on Martin’s demographic profile — in other words, Cohen is sorry that Martin is dead because of racial profiling — but on the other hand, Cohen argues, racial profiling is correct and necessary because black people are scary, at least when they wear certain things.
I don’t like what George Zimmerman did, and I hate that Trayvon Martin is dead. But I also can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize. I don’t know whether Zimmerman is a racist. But I’m tired of politicians and others who have donned hoodies in solidarity with Martin and who essentially suggest that, for recognizing the reality of urban crime in the United States, I am a racist. The hoodie blinds them as much as it did Zimmerman.
A “uniform we all recognize.” “We all.” “We.” Richard Cohen speaks for us all. Or “us” “all.” That one incredibly dumb assertion, stated with perfect idiotic certainty in the first-person plural, is exactly the sort of thing that makes Richard Cohen America’s worst columnist on America’s worst opinion page.
In the world outside Cohen’s tiny boomer rich guy bubble, “a hoodie” is worn by … nearly all young people and plenty of not-so-young people. To call a hoodie part of a (universally recognized!) “uniform” of Dangerous Black Thuggishness makes about as much sense as invoking high-tops or baseball caps. It is the “uniform” of youth. But then, to Richard Cohen, youth plus blackness makes probable cause.
Throughout much of the column, Cohen, play-acting at being a brave speaker of uncomfortable truths, keeps claiming that no one in America is willing to broach the topic of Black Criminals.
Where is the politician who will own up to the painful complexity of the problem and acknowledge the widespread fear of crime committed by young black males? This does not mean that raw racism has disappeared, and some judgments are not the product of invidious stereotyping. It does mean, though, that the public knows young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime. In New York City, blacks make up a quarter of the population, yet they represent 78 percent of all shooting suspects — almost all of them young men. We know them from the nightly news.
And, obviously, the nightly news has no ingrained bias in favor of fear-mongering and sensationalist coverage of crime.
That statistic is the only one in the column. Left out are numbers indicating current crime rates, the historical trend of crime rates, the probability of any given person, or any given wealthy white person, becoming a victim of violent crime, the percentage of crimes committed by black men in Sanford, Fla., or really any number at all that would’ve provided more enlightening context than “number of black shooting suspects in New York City.” Political scientist Jamie Chandler says, “Cohen should be embarrassed by his innumeracy,” but Cohen does not embarrass easily.
If he did, he might remember the lesson of his 1986 Washington Post Magazine column justifying racist treatment of black men. In it he defended shopkeepers who deny black men entrance into their stores. “As for me,” he wrote, “I’m with the store owners, although I was not at first. It took Bernhard Goetz, of all people, to expose my sloppy thinking.” Bernhard Goetz was a man who shot four young black men on a New York City subway car after he became frightened that they were going to rob him. (It was never actually proven that they were going to rob him.) Because this column ran in a newly relaunched Washington Post Magazine featuring a cover story on a young black rapper accused of murder, black Washingtonians protested, and eventually earned an apology from Post executive editor Ben Bradlee.
They did not receive an apology, at least not right away, from Cohen, who instead wrote a newspaper column headlined “‘Accused of Racism,’” in which Cohen complained of being accused of racism. In this column he defended cabdrivers who refuse to pick up black people. (Two years later, as Tom Scocca reports, Cohen acknowledged that his critics were “mostly right.” He acknowledged this after he went to Atlanta and met rich black people.)
That lesson, apparently, was short-lived. In an interview with Politico about this week’s column, Cohen explained how racial profiling isn’t inherently racist, because everyone does it:
“Now, a menace in another part of the country could be a white guy wearing a wife-beater under-shirt. Or, if you’re a black guy in the South and you come around the corner and you see a member of the Klu Klux Klan.”
This is Richard Cohen defending his position — that “young black males” dressed in “hoodies” deserve to be targeted not just by the police but by armed idiot civilians pretending to be the police — by invoking the Klan. For Richard Cohen, a young black person dressed in not just politically neutral but also omnipresent attire is basically the equivalent of a guy dressed in the actual official uniform of a terrorist organization dedicated to the violent establishment and maintenance of white supremacy. Richard Cohen just has a pathological fear of black men, and he wants not just to espouse and justify this view, but also to be allowed to do so without anyone calling him racist.
Richard Cohen is obsessed with the notion that no one in America is ever brave enough to talk about race, or at least brave enough to talk about it in the way he would like to talk about it, bearing in mind that he probably doesn’t actually read anyone outside his immediate professional sphere, or anyone below the age of 50, or probably women or writers of color. “In the meantime, the least we can do is talk honestly about the problem,” he says in this week’s column. (“The problem” is the black male crime wave.) “Crime where it intersects with race is given the silent treatment,” he says. He complains that instead of addressing the fears of white people like Richard Cohen head-on, Barack Obama has instead sold out his own grandmother for being racist, a malicious misreading of his 2008 Philadelphia speech that is common among right-wingers complaining of reverse racism. (Cohen does not add, as FAIR’s Peter Hart notes, that in the same speech, Barack Obama did explicitly say that “wish[ing] away the resentments of white Americans” as “misguided or even racist” is unfair, because “they are grounded in legitimate concerns.” It’s not clear that Cohen bothered to read the speech before quoting the bit about the grandma.)
It could be argued that politicians and public officials everywhere are addressing the fears of Richard Cohen, and they are doing so by locking a breathtaking number of young black men in prison, in addition to regularly stopping and harassing them on the streets of large American cities. But Cohen doesn’t concern himself with that. What he wants is for politicians — liberal politicians, preferably black ones — to tell him that it is OK to be scared of black people.
Here is Cohen in 2012, sort of defending stop-and-frisk, and again invoking the story of Trayvon Martin as an opportunity to discuss America’s single most pressing racial issue, people calling Richard Cohen racist:
As with the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, race is not only a complicating and highly emotional factor but one that does not always get discussed in an open manner. A suffocating silence blankets these incidents. Accusations of racism are hurled at those who so much as mention the abysmal homicide statistics — about half of all murders are committed by blacks, who represent just 12.6 percent of the population — and they come, more often than not, from liberals who advocate candor in (almost) all things. Others reply as if there are not basic questions of civil rights and civil liberties at stake.
It never occurs to Cohen that perhaps accusations of racism hurled at Richard Cohen constitute the “open discussion” he is so desperate for.
Cohen is not always such a fan of “open” discussions, as we learned in 2006, when he built an entire column around the fact that he’d received a lot of emails criticizing and insulting him. In that column he described getting a lot of mean emails as being the target of “a digital lynch mob,” so, yes, this is definitely the right guy for an informed and constructive conversation on race in America.
As a man who still somewhat incoherently clings to the label of “liberal,” Cohen does acknowledge, in what amounts to an aside in this week’s column, that there are some complicating factors in his diagnosis of Black Criminality:
The problems of the black underclass are hardly new. They are surely the product of slavery, the subsequent Jim Crow era and the tenacious persistence of racism. They will be solved someday, but not probably with any existing programs. For want of a better word, the problem is cultural, and it will be solved when the culture, somehow, is changed.
Whoops, we created a huge impoverished underclass. There is probably nothing we can do for them now, and they scare me, so they should work on fixing their “culture.”
The problem actually is cultural. It’s the culture that created and still coddles Richard Cohens.
Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @pareeneMore Alex Pareene.
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