Is Richard Cohen a Racist?

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen speaks during a Court TV panel discussion debating the use of confidential sources in journalism Tuesday Aug. 16, 2005 in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
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When I first saw the latest Richard Cohen brouhaha sparked by this column, I thought he suffered from Chronic Racial Grandpa-ism (CRG), a late in life on-set condition with which many of us are probably familiar. The person in question probably has little if any real racial animus and may even believe in equality as far as it goes. But they are constantly falling into ways of talking about race – and not just talking but thinking about race – that just aren’t how people talk any more. A constant source of cringes and excuse-making for younger relatives.

At 72, Cohen is old enough to be afflicted. But I don’t think that’s really what’s going on with him. There’s something more ambivalent and pernicious.

From a certain vantage point, the whole column is conventional and unexceptional. A whole swath of America feels like it’s on the losing side of vast social change – changing sexual mores, growing racial diversity, facing a brave new world in which whites are no longer the overwhelming, dominant and uncontested majority population but simply the dominant majority or eventually dominant plurality population. This whole perception, correct from one perspective, really is behind the whole cavalcade of fear, anger, revanche and the generalized perception on the hard right that the country is at a turning point of change from which there will be no going back. It’s the score behind the Shutdown libretto. If you look narrowly at the line that caught Cohen all the grief, he doesn’t actually say anything about his own views, at least not directly.

“People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.”

There are so many interesting and illuminating things packed into this single sentence. But the plainest is that it is simply demonstrably wrong. ‘Conventional’ can mean many things. But in this context it must mean some mix of what most people actually think and what most people believe is acceptable in how we conduct our lives today and think about other people. And this is just not how most Americans think today.

A second look at a biracial couple walking down the street out of some sense of novelty? Sure that still happens. Some resistance to a child marrying someone of a different race – particularly across the persistent and in America unique barrier of black and white – yeah, we know that still exists, though all the evidence suggests these residual hostilities are in in sharp decline. We’re not naive. But people who have to repress a gag reflex when they see an interracial couple aren’t people with ‘conventional views.’ They’re unreconstructed racists. There’s no other way to put it. Unfortunately, they make up a non-trivial percentage of the population.

The issue isn’t that Cohen is a racist. It’s that he holds his position of vast influence while living in some older white man’s cocoon, liberalish in a way but not much, in which he’s either indifferent or unconcerned with the actual America around him and routinely jumps at the chance to normalize and legitimize retrograde views about race. The problem with the article isn’t racism but inaccuracy, both descriptive and moral. And the complacent inaccuracy makes it worthy of criticism and contempt. People who have physical revulsion at interracial couples aren’t “cultural conservatives”; they’re racists. These attitudes about race are not conventional. Most people recognize them as racist and unacceptable in our society today.

Beyond that, there’s something people have rightly recognized about the word ‘gag’. This is such an intense, visceral metaphor – something that doesn’t come out of the blue or from a poorly chosen turn of phrase. Given Cohen’s history of racially charged columns, Cohen seems to have a thing for transgressive racial comments, some sort of self-regarding racial bad boyism. We probably all know the type from other contexts: the guy who says something bold and a bit outrageous, but in his mind that’ only because he’s keeping it real. He’s saying what we know is true but just aren’t willing to say. Except most of the people around him are saying or thinking, “No, actually that’s pretty weird, Dude.” Or, “No, I’m not thinking that. That’s actually pretty fucked up.”

From earlier controversies Cohen seems to have a lot of visceral fear of young black men. It’s hard not to speculate that imputing a grislier landscape of racial antipathy isn’t rooted in some sort of projective tension. But with ‘gag reflex’, there’s no doubt there’s something in Cohen that wants to posit an America far more racially retrograde than it actually is – and make plain old racism more a difference of a opinion we need to respect than something to be condemned.

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