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Richard Cohen Perfectly Embodies How Far We are from "Post-Racial"

J. Mijin Cha

Among all that has been written since the Trayvon Martin verdict, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen may take the cake for his ability to combine factual errors with ridiculous hyperbole. Cohen opens his op-ed by saying:

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.

Cohen is missing the point that people wore hoodies to show that a piece of clothing should not mean you are subject to automatic profiling. Just because Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie does not automatically mean he is a threat or a menace. Does Cohen also think Facebook founder Mark Zukerberg, who consistently wears a hoodie, is threatening or a representation of urban crime?

Cohen then goes on to say:

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.

Cohen uses this to justify New York City’s controversial Stop and Frisk program -- a program that is not only ineffective but also disproportionately targets people of color. Ninety percent of those stopped are black or Latino and roughly 90 percent of those stopped are neither arrested nor given a summons. Less than one percent of the stops lead to the recovery of a gun. A federal class action lawsuit has been filed by advocates against the NYPD and the City of New York that challenges the constitutionality of the program.

Cohen concludes his piece with this line,

The result was a quintessentially American tragedy — the death of a young man understandably suspected because he was black and tragically dead for the same reason.

Cohen very clearly illustrates the toxic phenomenon of stereotyping and institutional racism. How was Trayvon Martin, or any young black man for that matter, “understandably” suspected? Saying it is understandable that someone can be suspect because they are black justifies structurally discriminatory practices against an individual based solely on their race. Using Cohen’s logic, programs that only target blacks or people of color for harassment by law enforcement are justified based only on societal misperceptions. This practice is how institutional and structural racism is perpetuated and prolonged.

Jamelle Bouie of The American Prospect and the Daily Beast has written a series of excellent posts looking at the danger that people like Cohen cause because they perpetuate the myth that black people are more violent, and as a result, need more policing and force used against them. Indeed, when Cohen states “the public knows young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime,” he feeds justification into programs like Stop and Frisk.

In fact, as Bouie points out, crime is a result of “residential segregation and proximity -- people commit crimes against those closest to them.” Our increasingly segregated society dictates the races of victims and offenders, not any racial predisposition. Eighty-six percent of white victims of violent crime were killed by white offenders. Yet, where is the call for profiling of white offenders? Do people like Richard Cohen ever say white men are “understandably” suspect?

People like Richard Cohen show just how deeply racism is imbedded into our social, political, and economic institutions. As long as their viewpoints are considered valid, we will never be a “post-racial” society.