Cohen doesn’t see himself as racist, and he’s not – at least, not explicitly racist.
Earlier this week, Richard Cohen — a well-received opinion columnist for the Washington Post — upset many with his analysis of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s 2016 prospects of winning the Republican nomination for president. While few question Cohen’s analysis, the way he chose to illustrate his point created a storm of controversy.
“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,” Cohen wrote in his column. “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?) [Emphasis not germane to the original piece.] 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.”
As of 2011, 86 percent of all Americans approved of interracial marriages, per Gallup, including 96 percent of all African-Americans. This includes 77 percent of all Republicans and 78 percent of all conservatives. Interracial marriage is so commonly accepted in the United States that it has failed to be taken seriously as a political issue in any part of the nation among any population in more than a decade. So, when a well-received liberal-leaning columnist chose to use the phrase “…must repress a gag reflex when considering … a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children,” alarm bells start sounding everywhere.
After the fallout from his piece, Cohen took umbrage to be calling a racist. “The word racist is truly hurtful,” he told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. “It’s not who I am. It’s not who I ever was. It’s just not fair. It’s just not right.”
Cohen argued that he shouldn’t be judged by one line he wrote, but the entirety of his column.
“I could have picked a better word, but it didn’t ring any bells with anybody, it didn’t ring any bells with me,” Cohen wrote. “But there is a context to the column. You’ve got to read the whole column and if you read the whole column you can’t honestly think that these are my views or I endorse the views that I articulated in the column.”
The nature of racism
Cohen has been called out on his views on race before. In his analysis of the death of Trayvon Martin, Cohen passed responsibility for the death from Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman, to the nation’s attitude on race. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Zimmerman profiled Martin and, braced by a gun, set off in quest of heroism,” he reported. “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.”
In 1986, the Washington Post had to issue a face-saving apology after Cohen — in an article for the inaugural edition of the newspaper’s Sunday magazine — sided with New York City jewelry store owners who refuses admission of young Black man into their stores. “Especially in cities like Washington and New York, the menace comes from young black males. Both blacks and whites believe those young black males are the ones most likely to bop them over the head,” Cohen wrote in the piece.
The fact that Cohen doesn’t see himself as racist is not surprising at all. This is because he is not racist — at least, not explicitly racist. Cohen is casually or inherently racist — an infliction shared by nearly 60 percent of all Americans. What this means is this: Cohen has no inclination to do or say anything that is blatantly racist; but because his thinking and perspective have taken on a racial hue — perhaps, due to his continued exposure to negative stories about African-Americans — his attitude and posture in regards to African Americans are equally tinted. As this is part of his core thinking, he is unaware of the presence of the bias.
In the case of Cohen — while he could have chosen to express his complicated analyses using less-inflammatory language, and while his core intention with his articles may be meant to be non-racist, the fact he choose the words he did is a reflection on the man. For example, Cohen’s recent critique of “12 Years a Slave” was probably meant as an honest awakening to American history: “I sometimes think I have spent years unlearning what I learned earlier in my life. For instance, it was not George A. Custer who was attacked at the Little Bighorn. It was Custer — in a bad career move — who attacked the Indians. Much more important, slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks. Slavery was a lifetime’s condemnation to an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children. Happiness could not be pursued after that.” But others would perceive that, fairly, as Cohen recognizing that his perspective is askew.
Understanding the human brain
Part of humans’ mental evolution is risk-assessment. Being able to quickly analyze known dangers and avoid them is key to the survival of a species that has few natural defenses. The introduction of a continuing dialogue about how dangerous young black men are logically would induce an inherent negative call on those regularly subjected to this feed. What is now being learned is that it takes less than what was first suspected to form such a bias.
In joint research conducted by investigators at Stanford University, Seoul National University and Harvard University, the explicit and implicit racial attitudes of a national poll of respondents were tested. Among all ethnicities, 80.9 percent of all respondents showed an inclination to prefer white faces over any other race in an Implicit Attitude Test. 62.5 percent of all tested showed enough indicators to profile them as overtly racist.
Of greater concern, the research — which looked at voting patterns for President Obama’s 2008 victory — looked at the way the respondent interpreted the difference between races. The researchers found that visual and verbal cues can influence the way a person sees a situation: for example, introduction of President Obama as the “first black president” may force a respondent — who would have not considered race in that particular situation — to make an implicit reference to the president’s race.
“A more general question raised by our findings concerns the fit between visual and verbal references to race, on the one hand, and explicit and implicit racial attitudes, on the other,” the researchers noted. “The racial priming literature treats visual cues as more subtle or implicit than semantic (text-based) cues and hence more effective in activating racial attitudes as antecedents of vote choice or candidate evaluation …‘White voters respond to implicitly racial messages because they do not recognize these messages as racial and do not believe that their favorable response is motivated by racism. In fact, the racial reference in an implicit message, while subtle, is recognizable and works more powerfully through white voters racial stereotypes, fears, and resentments.’”
The “echo chamber”
Most Americans live in an “echo chamber” of sorts, where the criminality of African-Americans is played up, while their achievements are downplayed or criticized. This creates — even among the most liberal — “ghosts” that settle in the minds of those subjected to the repeated talking points. These “ghosts” tends to “haunt” the actions and language a person may use. In 2007, researchers found that studied doctors — on average — gave better care to their white patients than their black patients, recommending treatment to black patients less often. However, once the doctors were shown proof of this, the rate of recommended treatments between blacks and whites equalized.
“Implicit race biases are prevalent in the United States in general, and as such it should not be surprising that they are prevalent among physicians as well,” the researchers found. “The neural and cognitive processes underlying these biases are assumed to reflect both evolutionary bases and socially acquired orientations. The content of implicit biases(e.g., that black Americans are less cooperative than white Americans) are assumed to derive from sociocultural learning (e.g., explicit instruction and implicit messages) that accumulate over time.”
David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that sometimes the behavioral research leads us to completely change how we think about an issue, such as how many anti-discrimination policies focus on finding bad apples who are explicitly prejudiced.
Brooks continued, saying that both whites and blacks subtly try to get a white partner when asked to team up to do an intellectually difficult task, and in computer shooting simulations, both black and white participants were more likely to think black figures were armed.
“Clearly, we should spend more effort rigging situations to reduce universal, unconscious racism,” Brooks wrote.
This becomes a public safety concern when these unconscious biases influence behavior in a way that endangers others. In yet another research study, investigators recently found that there is a direct correlation between the perceived dangerousness of African-Americans and the likelihood to support gun rights.
“After adjusting for all explanatory variables in the model, symbolic racism was significantly related to having a gun in the home,” the researchers found. “Specifically, for each 1 point increase in symbolic racism, there was a 50% greater odds of having a gun in the home, and there was a 28% increase in the odds of supporting permits to carry concealed handguns … It is noteworthy that symbolic racism still maintained its significant relationship with support for permits to carry concealed handguns in the presence of having a gun in the home.”
As individuals increasingly recognize a fear, they grow correspondingly more likely to address that fear. The proliferation of the racial bias against African-Americans has led to justifications for “stop & frisk,” “stand your ground” and weakened gun control laws. “Gun-related deaths in the U.S. are a significant public health concern, representing a leading cause of death, and are particularly prevalent from ages 15–54,” the researchers found. “Attitudes towards guns in many U.S. whites appear to be influenced, like other policy preferences, by illogical racial biases. The present results suggest that gun control policies may need to be implemented independent of public opinion. The implementation of initially unpopular public health initiatives has proven effective for other public health threats (e.g., tobacco taxation, bans on smoking in public places, seatbelt use) that initially did not have widespread public and political support, but have eventually proven popular and have led to changes in attitudes.”
The United States is a racist country; there is no denying it. Inherent racism has, in a way, became the “hidden disease” in the sense that no one chooses to acknowledge it, talk about it, or recognize it as the threat it is. Yet, it is a real issue, and most Americans — without realizing it — have subjected another to it without knowing. Until a conversation on this can be broached and until the media and the press recognize and address its role in perpetuating the “echo chamber,” this is a situation that will only get worse. Only in an end to the denials can true solutions be found.
“I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates for the New York Times in response to news that Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker was frisked by an employee on suspicion of shoplifting from a Manhattan delicatessen. “I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli…It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: ‘Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.’ It is messaging propagated by moral people.”