Richard Cohen’s “Racism vs. reality” – whose reality?

Richard Cohen recently wrote an op-ed piece about Trayvon Martin’s murder by linking shooter George Zimmerman’s action to the criminal actions of black men at large. He understands that Zimmerman was suspicious of Martin because, he reasons, most crimes are committed by black men. He writes of New York City’s stop & frisk program, “which amounts to racial profiling writ large. After all, if young black males are your shooters, then it ought to be young black males whom the police stop and frisk. Still, common sense and common decency, not to mention the law, insist on other variables such as suspicious behavior. Even still, race is a factor, without a doubt. It would be senseless for the police to be stopping Danish tourists in Times Square just to make the statistics look good.”

He later goes on to say, “There’s no doubt in my mind that Zimmerman profiled Martin and, braced by a gun, set off in quest of heroism. The result was a quintessentially American tragedy — the death of a young man understandably suspected because he was black and tragically dead for the same reason.” Understandably suspected because he was black.


Well, let’s stop and think for a second. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, 99% of rapists are men. And according to a study done by Case Western Reserve University, over 90 percent of child rapists/molesters were men. So according to Cohen’s logic, we should be suspicious of male teachers, male pediatricians, male daycare center teachers, male babysitters, hell, even the dads that drop off their kids at school – stop and frisk ’em. So even though men roughly make up about half the population, they account for almost all the rape and child rape that is committed in this country.  Oh, but I’m not done. In 2011, men were responsible for about 90% of all homicides. And if that’s not disturbing enough, 80% of children under 5 were murdered by men. And we shouldn’t only be suspicious of men, but parents, because according to the FBI, in 1999, over 57% of child murders were committed by the kids’ parents – another 30% was a family friend or close relative. So, I guess all that “stranger danger” talk was bunk – according to these statistics, kids are safer with strangers!

Now, someone may see what I’m writing and assume that I’m grossly trivializing the numbers and oversimplifying them.

Now Cohen argues that the overwhelmingly large number of black males being arrested for crimes has its roots in Jim Crow, segregation, and racism. And to his credit, he’s right. But then he gets to give himself an out because he says things will change when the culture “shifts.” I see, so we have to wait for society to not be racist, but in the mean time, let’s still be racist. Racial profiling is simply another product of this racist culture that Cohen is referring to, and to argue that the culture should evolve, yet at the same time we should still practice one of its uglier ways of stereotyping is like suggesting that eventually, I’ll have to lose those pesky 15 pounds, but in the meantime, I’ll still eat that German chocolate cake.

Cohen writes that law enforcement should use “common sense and common decency, not to mention the law [and] other variables such as suspicious behavior.” He also says, “If the police are abusing their authority and using race as the only reason, that has got to stop.” Great, Mr. Cohen, and I’m glad you have such faith in our law enforcement as well as our government. But I don’t. According to a recent Gallup poll, one in four black respondents reported that he/she has been harassed by the police. Black people also overrepresent the over 5,000 cases of police brutality. In major cities, black (and Hispanic) people can make up over 80% of all police stops. So while Cohen is concerned about police officers ignoring race for some imagined political correctness, it appears that none of that ignoring is actually happening. And he’ll have to forgive black readers if they don’t have a similar rosy view of the police, that the officers can be trusted to only stop and frisk the “suspicious” black kids.

After all – what is suspicious behavior? To many seeing more than four black men walking together is a gang. Should a police officer have the right to stop and frisk them?

And even Cohen himself reaches for empathy writing, “If I were a young black male and were stopped just on account of my appearance, I would feel violated.” Nice. Except you’re not a young black male, and you never will be. And that’s a problem, when you start wondering how people should treat a mistreated group of people, when you haven’t been through what that group has suffered. It’s a little hard to say, “Yeah, it’d suck to be black and harassed because I’m innocent, but until things change, that’s how it has to be.” And then zip away.

The American tragedy that Cohen was writing about isn’t that Zimmerman rightly suspected Martin of wrong-doing because he was black; the American tragedy is that we still have people like Zimmerman who believe that suspecting black people of wrong-doing is justified. What is tragic is that we in society allow our fears of the “other” to cloud our judgement and allow us to betray our values of fairness and equality.

Cohen’s arguments for racial profiling take me back to the days right after 9/11 – and the refreshed fear of Muslims that gripped this country. This fear translated to thousands of Muslims, Arabs and Sikhs across the world being brutally targeted for imagined crimes simply because they matched a certain profile. We narrowed our definition of terrorism to such an extend that it basically excluded any other race or religion of perpetrators, simply to satisfy our Islamophobic agenda.

The death of Trayvon Martin brought out an ugly side of our society – one of anxious distrust. Zimmerman is a product of that side of our society – as is anyone else who believes that any kind of racial profiling is justifiable. But I understand why Cohen and Zimmerman and all of Zimmerman’s apologists are singing this tune.

We live in scary times – and in scary times we try to find some kind of semblance of order. We want to believe that if we implement certain steps, we’ll be safe. We want to know that if we target every guy wearing a turban, or every woman wearing a hijab, we’ll be safe. We want to know that if we target every black kid wearing a hoodie and low-slung baggy jeans, we’ll be safe. But we won’t be safe, because that’s not how crime works – criminals don’t come out of central casting, dressed by a Hollywood costume designer: criminals come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and clothes. And by focusing on men in turbans, or women in hijabs, or boys in hoodies, we may be missing the criminals in the business suits, the preppy sweaters, and the elegant Donna Karen separates.


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Filed under commentary, Nonfiction, politics

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