The Banality of Richard Cohen and Racist Profiling

Yesterday Richard Cohen wrote this:

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. 

Those statistics represent the justification for New York City's controversial stop-and-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.

I wish I had a solution to this problem. If I were a young black male and were stopped just on account of my appearance, I would feel violated. If the police are abusing their authority and using race as the only reason, that has got to stop. But if they ignore race, then they are fools and ought to go into another line of work.

It is very important to understand that no one is asking the NYPD to "ignore race." If an officer is looking for an specific suspect, no one would ask that the NYPD not include race as part of the description. But "Stop And Frisk" is not concerned with specific suspects, but with a broad class of people who are observed making "furtive movements."

With that said, we should take a moment to appreciate the import of Cohen's words. They hold that neither I, nor my twelve year old son, nor any of my nephews, nor any of my male family members deserve to be judged as individuals by the state. Instead we must be seen as members of a class more inclined to criminality. It does not matter that the vast, vast majority of black men commit no violent crime at all. Cohen argues that that majority should unduly bear the burden of police invasion, because of a minority who happens to live among us.

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Richard Cohen concedes that this is a violation, but it is one he believes black people, for the good of their country, must learn to live with. Effectively he is arguing for a kind of racist public safety tax. The tax may, or may not, end with a frisking. More contact with the police, and people who want to be police, necessarily means more deadly tragedy. Thus Cohen is not simply calling for my son and I to bear the brunt of "violation," he is calling for us to run a higher risk of death and serious injury at the hands of the state. Effectively he is calling for Sean Bell's fianceé, Trayvon Martin's parents, Amadou Diallo's mother, Prince Jones' daughter, and the relatives of Kathryn Johnston to accept the deaths of their love ones as the price of doing business in America.

The unspoken premise here is chilling—the annihilation of the black individual. To wit:

Jews are a famously accomplished group. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates.

I think we would concede that it would be wrong of me to assume that every Jewish person I meet is good at chess, physics or medicine. This year I am working at MIT where a disproportionate number of the students are Asian-Americans. It would be no more wise for me to take from this experience that individual Asian-Americans are good at math then it would be for anyone to look at the NBA and assume I am good at basketball. And we would agree with this because we generally hold that people deserve to be seen as individuals. But by Cohen's logic, the fact of being an African-American is an exception to this.

Perhaps the standards should be different when it comes to public safety and violence. But New York City's murder rate is as low as it has been in 50 years. How long should a racist public safety tax last? Until black people no longer constitute a disproportionate share of our violent criminals, one assumes. But black people do not constitute such a group—victims of hundreds of years of racist state policy constitute that group. "Black on Black" crime is the racecraft by which the fact of what was done to us disappears, and the fact of our DNA becomes criminalized.

I think Richard Cohen knows this:

The problems of the black underclass are hardly new. They are surely the product of slavery, the subsequent Jim Crow era and the tenacious persistence of racism. They will be solved someday, but not probably with any existing programs. For want of a better word, the problem is cultural, and it will be solved when the culture, somehow, is changed.

This paragraph is the American approach to racism in brief. Cohen can name the root causes. He is not blind to history. But he can not countenance the import of his own words. So he retreats to cynicism, pronouncing the American state to bankrupt to clean up a problem which it created, and, by an act of magic, lays it at the feet of something called "culture." 

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To paraphrase the old Sidney Harris cartoon, the formula for weak-sauce goes something like this

   (Forced Labor + Mass Rape)AUCTIONING YOUR CHILDREN
+ (Poll tax + Segregation + Grandfather clause)THE KLAN
+ (Redlining + Blockbusting + Race Riots)CUTTING YOU OUT OF THE NEW DEAL
-  THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS
= "Meh, you figure it out."

A capricious anti-intellectualism, a fanatical imbecility, a willful amnesia, an eternal sunshine upon our spotless minds, is white supremacy's gravest legacy. You would not know from reading Richard Cohen that the idea that blacks are more criminally prone is older than the crime stats we cite, that it has been cited since America's founding to justify the very kinds of public safety measures Cohen now endorses. Black criminality is more than myth; it is socially engineered prophecy. If you believe a people to be inhuman, you confine them to inhuman quarters and inhuman labor, and subject them to inhuman policy. When they then behave inhumanely to each other, you take it is as proof of your original thesis. The game is rigged. Because it must be.

You should not be deluded into thinking Richard Cohen an outlier. The most prominent advocate of profiling our current pariah classes—black people and Muslim Americans—is now being mentioned in conversations to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Those mentions received an endorsement from our president:

Kelly hasn't spoken about whether he wants the post, but in an interview with Univision, the president said he'd want to know if Kelly was considering a job change.

 

"Ray Kelly's obviously done an extraordinary job in New York," Obama said. "And the federal government partners a lot with New York, because obviously, our concerns about terrorism often times are focused on big-city targets, and I think Ray Kelly's one of the best there is.

What you must understand is that if the individual lives of those freighted by racism are worth less than those who are not, then all other inhumanities follow. This is the logic of Richard Cohen. It is the logic of Barack Obama's potential head of the DHS. This logic is not new, original, or especially egregious. It is the logic of the country's largest city. It is the logic of the American state. It is the logic scribbled across the lion's share of our history. And it is the logic that killed Trayvon Martin.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.


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