Racism and Richard Cohen

richard-cohenWay back in 2009, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen argued that race no longer mattered. Today he made a very strong argument that indeed it still matters quite a bit–especially to Richard Cohen.

Back then (5/4/09), his point was that affirmative action was no longer necessary:

a glance at the White House strongly suggests that things have changed. For most Americans, race has become supremely irrelevant. Everyone knows this. Every poll shows this. Maybe the Supreme Court will recognize this.

As I pointed out then (FAIR Blog, 5/5/09) this wasn’t just weird–it was false. Cohen’s paper had commissioned a poll a few months prior, asking if people believed racism was still a problem in American society. They did– 26 percent thought it a big problem, 48 percent thought it “somewhat” of a problem. 

Today Cohen decided to weigh in (7/16/13) on the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.  “I don’t like what George Zimmerman did, and I hate that Trayvon Martin is dead,” he begins–and you know there’s a “but” coming.

And that “but” is Cohen’s admission: “I also can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize.”

That “uniform” would seem to consist primarily of a hooded sweatshirt. And in Cohen’s mind, it’s people like Richard Cohen who are being victimized– people are saying that “for recognizing the reality of urban crime in the United States, I am a racist.”

I am not sure who is saying this to Richard Cohen. Nonetheless he yearns for a politician who is brave enough to “acknowledge the widespread fear of crime committed by young black males.” This is a strange wish, considering that the criminal justice system is, in many ways, perfectly emblematic of that fear, punishing people of color more harshly than whites for similar violations of the law.

Cohen jumps from this fear of black criminality to an endorsement of New York’s stop-and-frisk police tactics (a policy that would, at the very least, seem to fulfill Cohen’s wish for a politician willing to target black males). Cohen explains that blacks are overrepresented as shooting suspects, so racial profiling just makes sense:

Those statistics represent the justification for New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk program, which amounts to racial profiling writ large. After all, if young black males are your shooters, then it ought to be young black males whom the police stop and frisk. Still, common sense and common decency, not to mention the law, insist on other variables such as suspicious behavior. Even still, race is a factor, without a doubt. It would be senseless for the police to be stopping Danish tourists in Times Square just to make the statistics look good.

The critique of stop-and-frisk is that it, among other things, violates the 4th Amendment and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But it’s not clear that Cohen is even attempting to argue otherwise; the point is that black men, hooded or not, should be profiled. 

As Jamelle Bouie argues (Daily Beast, 7/15/13), this attempt to pathologize black crime is the problem. Crime, though, is more often “driven by opportunism and proximity; If African-Americans are more likely to be robbed, or injured, or killed by other African-Americans, it’s because they tend to live in the same neighborhoods as each other.”

He adds:

Nor are African-Americans especially criminal. If they were, you would still see high rates of crime among blacks, even as the nation sees a historic decline in criminal offenses. Instead, crime rates among African-Americans, and black youth in particular, have taken a sharp drop. In Washington, D.C., for example, fewer than 10 percent of black youth are in a gang, have sold drugs, have carried a gun, or have stolen more than $100 in goods.

 To Cohen, there is a fear of connecting race and crime– and he laments that Barack Obama has failed to fix this problem:

At one time, I thought Barack Obama would bring the problem into the open and remove the racist stigma. Instead, he perpetuated it. In his acclaimed Philadelphia speech on race, he cited his grandmother as “a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street.”

As some have noted, Obama has not exactly been shy about talking to black audiences about criminality. Cohen seems genuinely hurt that Obama mentioned his own grandmother’s racism in his speech about racism. Interestingly, he didn’t seem to zero in on the part of that speech where Obama spoke about resentment and anger among some white people “when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced.” 

Obama went on:

To wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

Somehow Cohen missed this part– though it was obviously intended for people like him.

Cohen does admit that if he were black, he’d likely view all of this very differently:

I wish I had a solution to this problem. If I were a young black male and were stopped just on account of my appearance, I would feel violated. If the police are abusing their authority and using race as the only reason, that has got to stop.

As Josmar Trujillo wrote in Extra! (5/13), media platforms are not often granted to those who would express that view:

The fact is that many Americans feel that they are living in a police state (Raw Story, 3/6/13; CounterPunch, 2/8/13)—but few get a platform to talk about it. One can only imagine the national dialogue on racial profiling and violations of the Fourth Amendment—protecting individuals against “unreasonable searches and seizures”—if national media paid attention to those who passionately oppose stop and frisk (Extra!, 3/12).

That platform is more likely belongs to someone like Cohen–who, in 1986, wrote a column defending store owners in Washington, D.C. who refused to allow young black men to enter their stores because of a fear of crime. The Post apologized to readers.  This time around they probably won’t.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.