Longtime Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen argued Tuesday that George Zimmerman was justified in suspecting Trayvon Martin of being a criminal because Martin was black and wearing a hoodie.
Calling it an "Orwellian exercise in political correctness" to pretend blacks are not more likely than whites to commit violent crimes, Cohen wrote that Zimmerman's assumption was not rooted in racism, but rather in hard evidence.
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. [Washington Post]
In a subsequent interview with Politico, Cohen explained that by "uniform" he specifically meant hoodies, the preferred clothing that's "worn by a whole lot of thugs."
"Look in the newspapers, online or on television: you see a lot of guys in the mugshots wearing hoodies," he said.
The column sparked an immediate backlash and accusations that Cohen was himself racist — whether he knows it or not.
Shorter Richard Cohen: "Herp derp derpity derp, I'm a racist." http://t.co/PmosPI73oO
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) July 16, 2013
I totally recognize the hoodie uniform. I wore it at UC Santa Cruz. Weirdly, no one thought I was dangerous. http://t.co/A86b8WiUCZ
— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) July 16, 2013
Richard Cohen’s not a racist, he just thinks it’s reasonable to assume young black men are all criminals: http://t.co/LVFcd3wiEr
— Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) July 16, 2013
In 1986, the Post apologized for a Cohen column that said jewelry store owners were justified in assuming young black men would rob them, and could therefore refuse to allow them into their shops.
Cohen told Politico he was only trying to explain in his latest column why it wasn't necessarily racist to stereotype people.
"I don't think it's racism to say, 'this person looks like a menace,'" he said. "Now, a menace in another part of the country could be a white guy wearing a wife-beater under-shirt. Or, if you're a black guy in the South and you come around the corner and you see a member of the Klu Klux Klan."
Cohen said when it came to violent crime, statistics supported his argument. He justified New York City's controversial stop-and-frisk program — a policy the ACLU considers an overt case of racial profiling — by arguing that because young black men make up the vast majority of the city's shooting suspects, it made sense for police to target them when searching the streets for guns.
"The public knows young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime," he wrote. "We know them from the nightly news."
Yet as ThinkProgress' Zack Beauchamp pointed out, the facts don't bear Cohen out.
Is Cohen’s basic claim — that higher rates of black crime make it reasonable to suspect black men of being criminals — true?
No. First, the basic assumption, that black men are more likely to commit crimes than the average member of another demographic, isn’t nearly as well-founded as Cohen wants it to be. For instance, blacks and whites use drugs at rates basically proportionate to the population: blacks are 14 percent of Americans and 14 percent of monthly drug users. Yet blacks are at least four times as likely as whites to be incarcerated for a drug crime. Could that have something to do with attitudes like Cohen’s? [ThinkProgress]
In a lengthy analysis at The Daily Beast, Jamelle Bouie elaborates on perceived notions of black crime:
Nor are African-Americans especially criminal. If they were, you would still see high rates of crime among blacks, even as the nation sees a historic decline in criminal offenses. Instead, crime rates among African-Americans, and black youth in particular, have taken a sharp drop. In Washington, D.C., for example, fewer than 10 percent of black youth are in a gang, have sold drugs, have carried a gun, or have stolen more than $100 in goods. [The Daily Beast]
Furthermore, as Elspeth Reeve at The Atlantic Wire noted, the gated community in Sanford, Fla, where Martin was killed is not New York City:
"Urban crime" is shorthand for young black people committing crimes in big cities on the verge of collapse. But Martin wasn't killed in Cabrini-Green. He was killed in Sanford, Florida (population 53,570), inside a gated community called the Retreat at Twin Lakes, which has about 260 townhouses. The alleged crime was a suburban crime. And, just for the record, it was not the black kid who was just acquitted of it. [The Atlantic Wire]
In other words, the staring-you-in-the-face facts that Cohen claims to have on his side appear to be very shaky. Which makes you wonder where Cohen's assumptions came from in the first place.
But the Post has stood by the column, citing the need to offer an array of opinions.
"I think if people want a 'conversation about race,' as is frequently suggested, they should be open to a range of views and perspectives," the Post's editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, told the Huffington Post. "If people don't like a particular opinion, my feeling is they should respond to it, not seek to stifle it."
Hiatt's explanation hardly quelled the criticism:
Shorter Fred Hiatt: "How can we talk about race if we don't invite racists to the table?" http://t.co/1O2JZjYN5u
— John Cook (@johnjcook) July 16, 2013