The Banality of Richard Cohen and Racist Profiling

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." 

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.

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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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