The “conventional” racism of Richard Cohen

Richard Cohen is a long-time columnist for the Washington Post. He’s been catching nine different flavors of Hell — and deservedly so — for a column he wrote on Monday.

The column was mainly about the GOP’s Tea Party problem, and inability to avoid far-right extremist litmus tests for its candidates, but he also offered the following observational steaming-nugget of ‘folksy’ wisdom:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. 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. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all. (Emphasis added.)

Richard Cohen, Washington Post columnist

Richard Cohen, Washington Post columnist

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: No Richard — you should not mention that Chirlane McCray ‘used to be a lesbian.’ What she is, is a woman who identified as lesbian, but is obviously bisexual. She wouldn’t be the first person to have experienced this kind of self-discovery. (I’m also going to fight mightily against my impulses to digress to rebuttals of Cohen’s misogynistic and homophobic essays over the last 20-30 years.)

On to the horns of the racism dilemma: Is Cohen so dense that he’s incapable of assessing a racist belief unless it’s wearing a Klan hood and sporting Nazi prison tattoos?

Or is he himself what I like to term “casual racist” — the sort of people who insist they’re not racist at all, except for when they let slip they actually are. Or is the truth of it even more dismaying?

How thick and denial-ridden can someone be to judge an impulse to vomit upon seeing an interracial couple and their kids as a merely “conventional,” but not quite racist, attitude? The only correct way to have written that sentence would have been to say, “People with racist views must suppress a gag reflex…

Cohen defended himself yesterday to the Huffington Post, telling the publication’s Ryan Grim and Katherine Fung that: “The word racist is truly hurtful. It’s not who I am. It’s not who I ever was. It’s just not fair. It’s just not right.”

Well, I disagree.

This isn’t Cohen’s first brush with accusations of racism, and he’s been around a long time. In 1986, he defended store owners banning African American boys — for fear of crime, y’see. More recently, Cohen said it was understandable that George Zimmerman should be suspicious of Trayvon Martin — for being black, young, and “wearing a uniform we all recognize.” He’s got problems with affirmative action, too.

Racism may be commonplace yet in America, but that doesn’t make it ‘conventional.’ Two generations ago, it was consider shocking enough that the very idea of an interracial couple and the social issues associated with such was the subject of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” — the 1967 classic Hepburn/Tracy movie, with Sidney Poitier.

Back then, an interracial marriage was decidedly ‘unconventional.’ Probably in large part because it was illegal in a number of states, and opposed by 70% of the population. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia — coincidentally decided that same year, 1967 — made it clear that all anti-miscegenation laws throughout the country were unconstitutional. Null and void.

Twenty years later, in the mid 80s, interracial marriages were still not very common — but that only made them ‘uncommon,’ not ‘unconventional.’

You see, the real problem I have with Cohen’s use of the word ‘conventional’ is that he lends legitimacy to blatantly racist beliefs. The unavoidable connotation of the word ‘conventional’ is that it’s normal, accepted, and preferred by most.

In fact, the counter can’t be avoided: Cohen believes that people who don’t have a problem with interracial couples, who don’t feel an urge to vomit upon seeing them, are ‘unconventional.’ Unusual. Out of the ordinary.

Apparently in Cohen’s America, people free of racist bigotry aren’t the norm. Racial acceptance and tolerance are newfangled cultural inventions, avante-garde notions yet to be mainstreamed. So by his standard, he actually believes large numbers of salt-of-the-earth, tradition-minded, good-hearted folks have the urge to blow chunks when seeing an interracial couple and their kids.

News flash, Richard: Those aren’t good-hearted ‘conventional’ people. They’re bigoted racists.

We’re coming up on half a century where it’s been illegal to ban people of different races from marrying — and  Cohen seems to think the very notion is weird and controversial.

And to my mind, he digs his own rhetorical grave even deeper as he tries to claim that today’s GOP isn’t racist.

Guess Who's Coming to DinnerI’m sorry, but that’s not how many of us out here — outside the Beltway Bubble — see it. From Lee Atwater’s “Southern Strategy” onward, it’s been one racist (and sexist, and homophobic, and anti-immigrant) policy, position, and party plank after another.

Reagan with his “Cadillac-driving welfare mothers” George W Bush with his Willie Horton ads. Gingrich and the GOP’s “T-bone steak-eating young bucks” as an excuse to dismantle welfare. The New Black Panthers (both of them) and ACORN.

And now we have the entire Republican party working obsessively to reinstate Jim Crow-era voting laws — voter suppression measures directed specifically at African Americans who, by stint of not being rich or white, tend to vote Democratic.

In closing, I’d like to pick apart that paragraph one more time — but with my commentary and rebuttals within.

“Today’s GOP is not racist–“ A political party, not being a person, can’t be racist, true. But they certainly do coddle racists, and have on more than one occasion adopted overtly racist policies. Let’s roll that tape of Mr. Horton again, shall we?

“as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party–“ Mr. Belafonte also made it clear he felt the Tea Party was merely an extension of the Republican party. By the way, it’s not just Harlem-born entertainers who allege this — lots of white folks think the Tea Party is infested with racists, too.

“but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government–“ Except when they’re in power, and they object not at all to the expansion of the military and national security state. In fact, their ‘deeply troubled’ is contrary to the fact the government has for the last half century always grown faster under Republican administrations than Democratic ones.

“about immigration, about secularism–“ They’re not troubled about these things at all. The GOP is against immigration, especially when we’re talking about brown people. Marco Rubio has learned that lesson already. And they are absolutely against the very notion of freedom FROM Christian fundamentalist religion.

“about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde.” Republicans still hate hippies. And snooty French art. Got it.

“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.” I am still fascinated how racism so virulent it brings on an urge to vomit is considered merely ‘conventional’ to Mr. Cohen. Normal. Common. Generally accepted. Mainstream.

“(Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?)” As before, no, you shouldn’t. Especially since you have no idea what the frig you’re talking about. You established decades ago you have no clue when it comes to sexual orientation and identity.

“This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America.” Sure, the non-‘Deliverance‘ parts. In most civilized locales, these families are… dare I say?… ‘conventional.’ Commonplace. Normal. Accepted.

“To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.” Only because they’re clinging to what they think their country should look like — white, Christian, heterosexual, sexist — and are stubbornly, vehemently, denying the reality of what OUR country actually does look like.

Let’s rewrite that last sentence, too, to what it should say: “To radical-conservative racist bigots, America doesn’t look like their idealized, racially-purified, Aryan fatherland at all.”

Published professional writer and poet, Becca had a three decade career in technical writing and consulting before selling off most of her possessions in 2006 to go live at an ashram in India for 3 years. She loves literature (especially science fiction), technology and science, progressive politics, cool electronic gadgets, and perfecting Hatch green chile recipes. Fortunately for this last, Becca and her wife currently live in New Mexico. @BeccaMorn

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