Richard Cohen is guilty of bad writing, but is he guilty of racism?

Richard Cohen, resident facepalm-inducing op-ed writer, who routinely makes me wonder how these folks get their jobs.
Richard Cohen, resident facepalm-inducing op-ed writer at the Washington Post, who routinely makes me wonder how these folks get their jobs.

Richard Cohen will never be accused of being a progressive on race politics: one need only look to his ham-fisted defense of New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” policy as evidence. This was an article wherein Cohen matter-of-factly stated, “The same holds for racial profiling. The numbers are proof not of racism but of a lamentable fact: Black and Hispanic men are disproportionately stopped because they are disproportionally the perpetrators of gun crime.”

Black people are criminal, argues Cohen, and we should treat them as such. Here, Cohen’s position on the supposed criminality (and therefore the humanity) of Black men is obvious. So, with this in mind, I cannot defend Cohen’s racial outlook: there is already ample published evidence suggesting that he has internalized a misguided and intolerant fear of African Americans that should not be tolerated.

But, is every article that Cohen guilty of that same overt racism simply by virtue of its author?  Today, Cohen wrote a brief op-ed in the Washington Post examining Governor Chris Christie’s chances in the Iowa caucus. That article has sparked massive Internet outrage, culminating in cries for him to be fired from the writing staff of the Washington Post.

While I’m not a fan of Cohen, I can’t help but wonder if this reaction is one I fully agree with?

Cohen wrote (emphasis mine):

Iowa not only is a serious obstacle for Christie and other Republican moderates, it also suggests something more ominous: the Dixiecrats of old. Officially the States’ Rights Democratic Party, they were breakaway Democrats whose primary issue was racial segregation. In its cause, they ran their own presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond, and almost cost Harry Truman the 1948 election. They didn’t care. Their objective was not to win — although that would have been nice — but to retain institutional, legal racism. They saw a way of life under attack and they feared its loss.

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.

A superficial reading of this paragraph — and indeed the entire article — chafes, particularly for someone like myself who is in the kind of interracial relationship that Cohen purports should be gag-inducing.

But, a deeper reading of this article has me pondering my initial outrage. The thesis of Cohen’s article is that the average Iowa Republican caucus voter — who lives in a state that is 93% White and where the Tea Party is deeply entrenched — is in the midst of a cultural paradigm shift involving the mainstream-ing of values that they considered fringe; he parallels their “struggle” to that experienced by the racist segregationist Dixiecrats of decades past. In that context, Cohen asserts, Christie is simply not conservative enough to win Iowa Republicans if pitted against more Rightwing candidates like Ted Cruz, if both were in a head-to-head primary fight for 2016’s Republican candidacy.

This is the important context for Cohen’s article: he is summarizing the outlook of the mainstream Iowa Republican voter, as a general representative of the average rural “value voter” — a voter who is by definition Right-leaning, but who is also by the numbers more likely to be White in a predominantly White environment, aged 45-70, male, and who votes based on an expansive notion of conservative “values”. And, in this context, Cohen is not wrong: this Republican primary voter living somewhere in rural Iowa — who grew up during Jim Crow while never having really experienced the civil rights struggle firsthand and who today may interact with, like, two Black people in total — will have a hard-time accepting interracial marriage as mainstream. And this is precisely for the reason that Cohen states: “to cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.” To cultural conservatives, it’s all about the Culture Wars, and the inevitable message of the mainstreaming of progressive values is that cultural conservatives are losing.

Where Cohen really messes up in this article is in his writing. The cultural conservative that he describes at the end of the sentence, is — by his own argument — not holding the “conventional” view, if “conventional” is being used in its more conventional (pun intended) definition, meaning “typical”, “average” or “mainstream”. This definition makes no sense in the larger context of his article. There are plenty of polls that show the average voter has no particular issue with interracial marriage. Yet Cohen still uses the word to describe his voter. A few minutes with a dictionary reveals the secondary meaning that Cohen is likely invoking: “conventional” as a synonym for “traditional” or even “conformist”. This is the only definition of “conventional” that makes sense given the rest of Cohen’s writing.

This is a great example of bad writing on Cohen’s part, because the usage of “conventional” is decidedly unconventional, and otherwise confusing.  But, the charge of being a sloppy writer doesn’t seem to fully encompass the outrage against him. Whereas Cohen appears to have ill-advisedly chosen the word “conventional” to affect a measure of objectivity in his article so that he can talk about his value voter without passing judgement on him, it is precisely that measured objectivity that seems to irk some. Writes Alex Pareene in Salon:

The trouble with this paragraph is the use of the word “conventional” instead of, say, “retrograde” or “archaic” or “racist.” What kind of mind, and person, says “conventional” there? What kind of mind, and person, just automatically thinks of “conventional” “people” as reactionary, racist whites? Neutral, normal people, for Cohen, are always reactionary whites; remember how black kids in hoodies are wearing a “uniform we all recognize”? That “we all” there was doing the same work the “people with conventional views” is doing here. Those choices reveal a man very much out of touch with this era and deeply discomfited by it. (They also reveal a man who is terrified of black people.)

So, here in the real world, in 2013, the vast majority of Americans “approve” of interracial marriage. Majorities have approved since the mid-1990s. Seventy percent of people over 65approve of black-white marriage. The “conventional” view, now, is that multiracial families are normal. “People with conventional views” are much more appalled by unreconstructed racism than by seeing a white man and a black woman raise a family together.

The issue, at least as expressed by Pareene, seems less what Cohen said, and more what Cohen didn’t say: specifically the expected boilerplate that racist things are racist. Instead, Cohen asserts — in true Cohen fashion — that the squeamishness of his Iowa value voter isn’t due to stock racism alone, but instead (or also?) because of the value voter’s general squeamishness at the mainstream-ing of what this voter once saw as a cultural fringe.

I think Cohen’s point is wrong. I would argue that racist things are pretty racist, and if a voter doesn’t want to vote for Bill de Blasio because of his race and the race of his family, that is good evidence of racism. Further, dolling up that racism as mere difficulties adjusting to “tectonic shifts in attitude” is apologist at best. So, no, Cohen is wrong in saying that the viewpoints of these Iowa voters is evidence that the GOP is “not racist”. But he’s being wrong, not racist.

Further, nowhere in the article is there evidence to conclude that Cohen agrees with his hypothetical values voter on this one, or that he believes that this Iowa value voter is or should be the mainstream of the Republican Party. Indeed earlier in his article, he spends a good deal of time being fairly critical of these voters: after lambasting the Republican picks of the Iowa Republican, he writes, “if this is the future of the GOP, then it’s in the past.” He then goes on to bemoan the rigid views of Ted Cruz and his evangelist father when it comes to gay marriage. In short, there’s plenty of fodder elsewhere in the archives from Cohen’s own pen to support the conclusion that Cohen is pretty racist, but I’m not sure we can or should include this piece as one of our exhibits.

As far as this article is concerned, the problem really seems to be based on the accusation that Cohen wasn’t sufficiently damning of the racism of his hypothetical values voter in this specific paragraph; sufficiently, as defined by those of us who aren’t rural Iowan voters casting ballots in 2016’s Republican primary. More specifically, Cohen didn’t devote extra space into his column to explicitly judge (and judge negatively) his values voter’s values, as if there’s now an unwritten Good Samaritan law that expects anyone observing racist things to openly decry that racism for fear of being racist by proxy. It was an ill-advised tactic on Cohen’s part to not spend more time talking negatively about this aspect of his value voter, but mainly because he does do it elsewhere in the piece so it would have been stronger to reinforce that idea in the particular sentence that has been subsequently cited out-of-context. But, was this oversight a fire-able offense?

I think Cohen owes his readers additional explanation about the meaning of his writing. Perhaps — perhaps — he owes us an apology for justifying intolerance on the part of a subset of rural voters. But I don’t know that he deserves unilateral firing, at least not for this alone. I think it’s completely fair to disagree with Cohen on the merits (or in this case the lack thereof) of his argument. But I don’t know that I buy that he is being racist, particularly since he’s mainly citing the racism of other people.

And, let’s face it. There are racist people in the world. Many of them live in racially homogenous places like rural Iowa or Appalachia or in the Midwest, where intolerant and prejudiced views can persist unchallenged simply because there aren’t people of colour around to challenge them. It is not racist for Cohen to state that these views exist; it is unrealistic for those of us in interracial relationships to universalize to the rest of the country the tolerance for interracial marriage we are privileged to enjoy because we are predominantly young and upper-middle-class people living in urban, multicultural, and/or Democratic-leaning areas, and otherwise hanging out in the echo chamber that is the Internet.

It’s gag-inducing to be reminded that my marriage can be gag-inducing to other people. But it’s also true; and likely will continue to be for as long as there are racists in the world. It would be irresponsible of me to forget that, or to confuse the actual racists with those who are reporting on them.

Did you like this post? Please support Reappropriate on Patreon!