Richard Cohen’s controversial piece on Trayvon Martin trial

Washington Post op ed writer Richard Cohen wrote a piece today about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial.  Cohen’s op ed has caused a bit of a firestorm, and I think it’s worth reading both his column and some of the responses.

First, some of Cohen’s main points:

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.

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….

In the meantime, the least we can do is talk honestly about the problem. It does no one any good to merely cite the number of stop-and-frisks involving black males without citing the murder statistics as well. Citing the former and not the latter is an Orwellian exercise in political correctness. It not only censors half of the story but also suggests that racism is the sole reason for the policy. This mindlessness, like racism itself, is repugnant.

Ben Adler, from the Nation, was one of those outraged by Cohen’s article:

Some people might be offended by Richard Cohen’s Washington Post column today, which defends racial profiling of young African-American men on the grounds that they are disproportionately likely to commit crimes…..

“It does no one any good to merely cite the number of stop-and-frisks involving black males without citing the murder statistics as well. Citing the former and not the latter is an Orwellian exercise in political correctness. It not only censors half of the story but also suggests that racism is the sole reason for the policy. This mindlessness, like racism itself, is repugnant.”

There’s some classic false equivalence for you. Political correctness isn’t just wrong to Cohen, it’s repugnant. As repugnant as racism itself! Because, you know, political correctness has been used to justify slavery and Jim Crow, right?

Also, Cohen needs to re-read 1984. There’s nothing “Orwellian” about the arguably intellectually dishonest practice of citing police stops of black males without citing murder statistics. It may be bad argumentation, but that was not Orwell’s concern. Orwell was concerned with totalitarianism, and something “Orwellian” is totalitarian. If Cohen is worried about intellectual laziness, perhaps he should look at his own writing.

Is Cohen right?  Are a significant number of Americans afraid of young black men, because of the urban crime rate, and is the debate over the Zimmerman verdict, and the larger debate over race that ensued, refusing to acknowledge this?

Or is Adler right, is Cohen simply making false equivalences in order to justify racial profiling, and racism?

I will say that I think Cohen didn’t do his argument any credit by getting into the racial profiling issue – which is its own complicated, and controversial area, that only serves to further polarize the discussion.

Acknowledging that, part of Cohen’s point is that if we are going to have a discussion about race in America, and why some people, or even a lot of people, have a fear (call it a racist fear) of young black men, is it important that we also talk about why some people are afraid, namely, the crime statistics, and their (rational or irrational) fear of being a victim of a violent crime?  Is that a reasonable issue to discuss, or not – and if so, why or why not?

You could argue that having this discussion at all “blames the victim.”  And that it’s never okay to shoot an innocent young man who has done nothing wrong, regardless of why the underlying suspicion might have been there.  Others, like Cohen, I suspect, would argue that they agree, it’s never acceptable.  But, he’d also say that if we’re going to try to change things, and make it so that people aren’t suspicious of young black men in the future, we need to address the reason some people are afraid in the first place, namely the crime statistics.

Outrage is understandable. But as an activist, or any concerned progressive, the question we face is what to do to change things in the future.  How we do best approach this issue, in the aftermath of the verdict, to affect positive change?

What do you think?


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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