Not every columnist would look at the death of an unarmed 17-year-old black kid, shot after he was racially profiled, as an occasion to write a column about how all black teenagers deserve to be racially profiled. But the Washington Post's Richard Cohen is a very special columnist. The killing of Trayvon Martin, Cohen writes, is
a quintessentially American tragedy — the death of a young man understandably suspected because he was black and tragically dead for the same reason.
Understandably! Yes, he was merely walking home with a bag of candy, but he was, after all, black. And people can never be too careful around black teenagers.
This may strike some people as an insensitive and obtuse reaction to the death of an innocent minor. But it wasn't really a reaction at all. It was a reflex. Richard Cohen is afraid of black teenagers, and sometimes he just has to put that sentiment down into the pages of the Washington Post. Like so:
Especially in cities like Washington and New York, the menace comes from young black males. Both blacks and whites believe those young black males are the ones most likely to bop them over the head.
That's Richard Cohen in 1986, in the inaugural issue of the Washington Post Magazine, arguing on behalf of jewelers and clothiers who locked black shoppers out of their stores. In combination with a cover story called "Murder, Drugs, and the Rap Star," it nearly got the magazine killed in its cradle by protests.
Then, as now, Cohen was unable to articulate any other ways to distinguish between a young man who might want to buy jewelry (or walk home from the store in peace) and the young men who had terrorized Bernhard Goetz on the New York subway (or provoked George Zimmerman into vigilance). A person's racial identity was enough to establish character and intent. If you'd seen one, you'd seen them all.
Richard Cohen was very sorry about this, afterward. Two years later, he wrote about how he received an "education by pounding," and noted that his critics were "mostly right." He had gone to Atlanta and, accompanied by a foreigner, witnessed how black people could be clean and well-behaved and could drive expensive automobiles.
I watched my friend. She had never seen anything quite like this — not just the performance, not just the audience response, but the audience itself. Here was the black middle class, maybe the upper-middle class, maybe the upper class. Here was finery and taste and, probably accounting for both, college educations and good jobs, in some cases business ownership.
But Richard Cohen never really learned anything about being racist, any more than he has ever learned anything about sexual harassment. Here he is in 1988, on that subject:
Ms. H. sits near my office where she does God's work: journalism. Cruising down the aisle one day, I pass her and take notice. Ms. H. is wearing a short skirt and her legs are extended into the aisle. One glance triggers a rush of hormones that, like an anesthetic, block the nerves leading to my common sense.
"Great legs," I say — to which I get a lecture on male chauvinist piggism. Admonished, I retreat to my office, momentarily confused but, in the end, wiser.
Again, Richard Cohen "learned something." But it didn't keep him from sexually harassing an editorial aide a decade later. And that, in turn, didn't keep him from urging everyone to forgive Clarence Thomas for harassing Anita Hill—or, as Cohen put it, for having been "condemned of being a man."
Cohen is usually classified as a "liberal," because he writes for the Washington Post and is broadly sympathetic to Democratic policies. His career is a useful reminder that those credentials don't actually disqualify a person from being a bigot—and that being a bigot doesn't really have to cost a fellow his job.
Richard Cohen views women as sex objects and black men as dangers. He is an unregenerate pig. Why should he change his views? The Washington Post keeps publishing them.
[Photos via Getty]