Exclusive: After George Zimmerman was acquitted for murdering Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, many Americans reacted with disgust. But others, like columnist Richard Cohen, blamed the slaying on a white person’s understandable fear of young black males, reports Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
In 2007, I wrote an article asking whether the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen was “the dumbest columnist ever,” acknowledging that it would be quite a competition. But his latest blathering about the Trayvon Martin case should resolve the question once and for all. Cohen wins, hands-down.
There are many worthy observations that one might make about the acquittal of George Zimmerman for shooting the unarmed 17-year-old African-American boy, especially the recognition that white racism is still a serious problem in the United States and that systemic mistreatment of blacks and other minorities remains a national scandal. But Cohen was more interested in voicing sympathy for Zimmerman because Cohen, too, gets scared when he sees a black youth in a hoodie.
On Tuesday, Cohen wrote that he “can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize,” i.e. the hoodie. Cohen’s biggest beef was with “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.”
Cohen singled out New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn for the unpardonable sin of donning a hoodie and added: “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?”
He then praised New York City police for targeting black youth with “stop and frisk” policies, since, he wrote, “if young black males are your shooters, then it ought to be young black males whom the police stop and frisk.”
Of course, such profiling also might land a lot more black youth in jail for petty offenses like marijuana possession, even though they are no more likely than white youth to carry around a joint. But, hey, that’s a price young blacks have to pay so Richard Cohen won’t be so frightened.
Cohen also poked fun at anyone who would advocate a race-neutral approach to “stop-and-frisk” police actions. “It would be senseless for the police to be stopping Danish tourists in Times Square just to make the statistics look good,” he wrote. Yuck, yuck!
Then, after rationalizing racial profiling of young black males, Cohen threw up his hands on the possibility of any serious national effort to address the centuries-old mistreatment of African-Americans in the United States.
“The problems of the black underclass are hardly new,” he continued. “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.”
Cohen’s pretentious appeal to some future “cultural” transformation regarding the historic oppression of African-Americans is, of course, a cop-out, one that has been practiced at least since the Founding when slaveholders like Thomas Jefferson would wring their hands about the abomination of slavery and the need to do something, but then continue to own black slaves and have them whipped for running away.
As I write this article, I’m at a coffee shop just a few blocks from Freedman’s Village, a community created during the Civil War for emancipated slaves including those who had worked on Robert E. Lee’s plantation in Arlington, Virginia.
When Gen. Lee deserted his Union command in favor of leading the Confederacy’s army, part of Lee’s property was taken for a cemetery to bury American soldiers and part was given over to freed African-Americans who began a vibrant community of craftsmen in what is now South Arlington.
However, the promise of freedom from the Civil War was never backed up with the political will necessary to change the predicament that these former slaves faced. Many had been denied education and their families were often broken up so plantation owners in the old slave states could make more money by breeding their blacks and selling the children to the new slave states in the west.
After the Civil War ended, the Radical Republicans and President Ulysses S. Grant tried to force a cultural change throughout the South, an acceptance of African-Americans as full citizens of the United States. But the traditional white aristocracy reasserted its control, often using terror tactics of the Ku Klux Klan.
By 1877, the Republican Party had grown weary of the struggle and abandoned Southern blacks to the gentle mercies of the white racist political leaders anchored in the Democratic Party, which went from being the party of slavery to the party of segregation.
In South Arlington today, the legacy of that post-Reconstruction resurgent racism is still visible in the fact that U.S. Route 1 – as it passes not far from the old Freedman’s Village – is named after Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a particularly virulent white supremacist. Meanwhile, there is no official recognition of Freedman’s Village beyond its legacy of making South Arlington the most racially diverse part of the county. South Arlington is also the section most neglected for public improvements.
Metro’s Orange Line had originally been planned for Columbia Pike, the main thoroughfare through South Arlington, but the subway line was shifted to whiter North Arlington, which has experienced an economic boom as a result. Even today, a proposal for a Streetcar line down Columbia Pike – a far less expensive alternative – languishes amid complaints that the county shouldn’t spend the money.
The reality is much worse in Richmond, Virginia’s capital, where homage to the Confederacy is even more lavish. Along Monument Avenue, there are massive statues in honor of General Lee, Confederate President Davis and other Confederate luminaries.
After the end of Reconstruction, it took nearly a century – and much more bloodshed – for the United States to finally overturn Jim Crow laws and segregation. It was a bitter political struggle spearheaded by principled Republicans and Democrats operating at the national level. Again, the federal government intervened against recalcitrant white Southerners.
But the South’s political structure continued to resist, this time by switching allegiances to a revamped Republican Party where opportunistic leaders such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan saw the potential to flip the electoral map by pandering to white racists, albeit with “race-neutral” code words.
One of the appeals from these Republican politicians was that government programs to help blacks would not resolve or ameliorate the legacies of slavery and segregation, that only a “cultural” shift would do, a “change of the heart.”
Of course, waiting for that change meant that, in the meantime, blacks would be “stopped and frisked,” charged with both petty and serious crimes, incarcerated at extraordinary rates, denied employment and voting rights once they got out, and left in poverty, without health care and dying at a premature age.
But you can’t expect Richard Cohen or idiots like him to grasp the scope of this national shame – the gravity of this national scandal – because he is too nervous when he sees a young black man in a hoodie.
Why the Dumbest?
If you’re wondering the context of my 2007 article asking if Cohen was “the dumbest columnist ever,” it was his fury over the conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney’s aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby for committing perjury and obstruction of justice in the exposure of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Libby had been one of the Bush administration officials who peddled Plame’s covert identity to journalists in an effort to discredit her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, after he exposed one of the lies that President George W. Bush had cited to justify his invasion of Iraq.
Like many of his Inside-the-Beltway cohorts, Cohen defended Libby and denounced special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald for daring to bring the charges against Libby, one of their beloved neocons. Cohen called the prosecution of Libby for lying about his role in unmasking Plame and destroying her career “a mountain out of a molehill.”
Cohen also mocked Americans who thought the invasion of Iraq might have been a bad idea. “They thought – if ‘thought’ can be used in this context – that if the thread was pulled on who had leaked the identity of Valerie Plame to Robert D. Novak, the effort to snooker an entire nation into war would unravel and this would show . . . who knows? Something,” Cohen wrote.
But Cohen’s incompetence did not stop with his deference to political leaders who started wars on false pretenses. As a nationally syndicated columnist based at the Washington Post, Cohen had a remarkable record of getting nearly every major political development over the past couple of decades wrong.
For example, during the Florida recount battle in 2000, Cohen cared less about whom the voters wanted in the White House than the Washington insiders’ certainty that George W. Bush would be a uniter, not a divider. “The nation will be in dire need of a conciliator, a likable guy who will make things better and not worse,” Cohen wrote. “That man is not Al Gore. That man is George W. Bush.”
After being installed in the White House by five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court – after coming in second to Gore both nationally and (if all legal votes were counted) in Florida – Bush became one of the most divisive – and disastrous – presidents in American history.
Bush treated his critics, including many national Democrats, with disdain, even questioning their patriotism for not marching in lockstep behind him. Most egregiously, he exploited the national mourning over the 9/11 attacks to justify the invasion of Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 but had been a longstanding target of the neoconservatives.
Cohen was one of the neocon columnists who joined the Washington herd in the stampede for invading Iraq, and he disparaged Americans and U.S. allies who wouldn’t follow behind. After Secretary of State Colin Powell’s deceptive Iraq War speech to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, Cohen ridiculed anyone who still dared doubt that Saddam Hussein possessed hidden WMD stockpiles.
“The evidence he [Powell] presented to the United Nations – some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail – had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them,” Cohen wrote. “Only a fool – or possibly a Frenchman – could conclude otherwise.”
Though Cohen never apologized to us fools and Frenchmen — those who didn’t buy the Bush administration’s lies — he did finally recognize more than three years later that his certainty about the war had been misplaced.
On April 4, 2006, as the U.S. death toll reached into the thousands and the Iraqi death toll soared into the tens of thousands, Cohen wrote, “those of us who once advocated this war are humbled. It’s not just that we grossly underestimated the enemy. We vastly overestimated the Bush administration.”
In normal work settings, incompetence – especially when it is chronic and has devastating consequences – justifies dismissal or at least demotion, maybe a desk in Storage Room B where Cohen could sit with his red stapler, but certainly denied access to a word processor and the op-ed page of a major newspaper.
Yet, in the strange world of Washington punditry, success is measured not by getting the story straight but by keeping one’s opinions within the parameters of the capital’s “group think,” even if those judgments are atrociously wrong.
Now, Richard Cohen weighs in with his sophomoric insights regarding his fears about black youth and his silly rationalizations for George Zimmerman who profiled and then killed Trayvon Martin with a gun shot through his heart. In conclusion, Cohen wrote:
“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?” No wonder some people consider Richard Cohen to be a racist.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.