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Washington Post Columnist Richard Cohen: Black People Are Scary

Commenting on Zimmerman case, admittedly racist columnist explains how hoodies are the "uniform" of criminals.

Photo Credit: Ronald Summers/



Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote an offensive, poorly reasoned column about racial profiling.  In 1986. And  also this week. And once or twice or let’s say perhaps a dozen additional times in the interim. The occasion of this week’s installment of “Richard Cohen explains why black men should be treated as second-class citizens for the safety of us all, which is to say rich old white men” is the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Cohen is very sorry that Martin is dead due to Zimmerman incorrectly assuming him to be a criminal of some sort based solely on Martin’s demographic profile — in other words, Cohen is sorry that Martin is dead because of racial profiling — but on the other hand, Cohen argues, racial profiling is correct and necessary because black people are scary, at least when they wear certain things.

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.

A “uniform we all recognize.” “We all.” “We.” Richard Cohen speaks for us all. Or “us” “all.” That one incredibly dumb assertion, stated with perfect idiotic certainty in the first-person plural, is exactly the sort of thing that makes Richard Cohen America’s worst columnist on America’s worst opinion page.

In the world outside Cohen’s tiny Boomer rich guy bubble, “a hoodie” is worn by… nearly all young people and plenty of not-so-young people. To call a hoodie part of a (universally recognized!) “uniform” of Dangerous Black Thuggishness makes about as much sense as invoking high-tops or baseball caps. It is the “uniform” of youth. But then, to Richard Cohen, youth plus blackness makes probable cause.

Throughout much of the column, Cohen, play-acting at being a brave speaker of uncomfortable truths, keeps claiming that no one in America is willing to broach the topic of Black Criminals.

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.

And, obviously, the nightly news has no ingrained bias in favor of fear-mongering and sensationalist coverage of crime.

That statistic is the only one in the column. Left out are numbers indicating current crime rates, the historical trend of crime rates, the probability of any given person, or any given wealthy white person, becoming a victim of violent crime, the percentage of crimes committed by black men in Sanford, Florida, or really any number at all that would’ve provided more enlightening context than “number of black shooting suspects in New York City.”  Political scientist Jamie Chandler says “Cohen should be embarrassed by his innumeracy,” but Cohen does not embarrass easy.