Richard Cohen's column in Tuesday's Washington Post— arguing that George Zimmerman was right to assume Trayvon Martin was a criminal, because he was a black male—is racist and wrong. More important, it's wrong because it's racist. That is, it's not that Cohen is "wrong" in the oh-that's-so-politically-incorrect sense. It's that he's wrong because the assumptions he makes about race and crime are not based on facts.
Cohen appears to believe all black men are the same, and that they are violent. Cohen says he's "tired" of politicians and activists "who essentially suggest that, for recognizing the reality of urban crime in the United States, I am a racist." He justifies Zimmerman's assumption that Martin was a criminal by citing statistics about crime in New York. "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," Cohen writes. "We know them from the nightly news." While New York's stop-and-frisk program has been criticized for disproportionately targeting minorities, Cohen says, "if young black males are your shooters, then it ought to be young black males whom the police stop and frisk." If police "ignore race, then they are fools and ought to go into another line of work."
"Urban crime" is shorthand for young black people committing crimes in big cities on the verge of collapse. But Martin wasn't killed in Cabrini-Green. He was killed in Sanford, Florida (population 53,570), inside a gated community called the Retreat at Twin Lakes, which has about 260 townhouses. The alleged crime was a suburban crime. And, just for the record, it was not the black kid who was just acquitted of it.
Cohen is trying to conjure images of urban blight in the 1980s—back when, as Matt Yglesias points out, Cohen argued that it was okay for jewelry store owners to refuse to let black people in because they were afraid of crime. Today, Cohen writes that even the black male president should be scared of black males:
In his acclaimed Philadelphia speech on race, [President Obama] cited his grandmother as “a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street.”
How about the former Barry Obama? When he was a Columbia University student living on the lip of then-dangerous Harlem, did he never have the same fear?
The thing is, a lot has changed since the 1980s. Reading Cohen's column, you'd get the impression that there was an epidemic of crime committed by black people. Too bad he didn't read Jamelle Bouie's article in The Daily Beast a day earlier, about "the Myth of Black-on-Black Crime." Crime rates have been dropping for 20 years. (Just for the record, New York's murder rate in 2012 was the lowest since the 1960s.) If black people were predisposed to committing crimes, Bouie points out, "you would still see high rates of crime among blacks, even as the nation sees a historic decline in criminal offenses. Instead, crime rates among African-Americans, and black youth in particular, have taken a sharp drop." Fewer than 10 percent of black kids in Washington, D.C., the home of Cohen's employer, "are in a gang, have sold drugs, have carried a gun, or have stolen more than $100 in goods."
Cohen is upset that no one is talking about the epidemic of black violence that isn't real. "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 asks. "Crime where it intersects with race is given the silent treatment... It is, like sex in the Victorian era (or the 1950s), an unmentionable but unmistakable part of life."
It is unacceptable to complain that "nobody is talking about X" when you have an Internet connection. You can find people talking about anything. Email me, and I can point you to the top 10 '90s nostalgia GIF tumblrs. But you wouldn't need to dig for people saying we should be afraid of black violence—warning, say, that black people would riot if Zimmerman were acquitted. You could just flip on Rush Limbaugh.
Studies have shown poverty has more to do with crime than race does. More unexpectedly, research published in the American Journal of Sociology in 2001 found that people are more likely to think their neighborhood has a higher crime rate if more young black men live there. The Retreat at Twin Lakes is a multi-ethnic neighborhood—about half white, 20 percent Hispanic, and 20 percent black, The Daily Beast's Amy Green reports. George Zimmerman had called police 46 times. He organized the neighborhood watch. Cohen writes, "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." With his column, Cohen is perpetuating the attitude that made that tragedy possible.
Update: Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt tells the Huffington Post, "If I had not published the column, just as many people would be asking why the Post can’t tolerate diverse points of view." He added, "I think if people want a 'conversation about race,' as is frequently suggested, they should be open to a range of views and perspectives." There are a range of issues where on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand makes sense, because there are compelling arguments and data on both sides: campaign finance, defense spending, charter schools. But it's a little tone deaf on this issue: some people think black teenagers are dangerous monsters, some people think holding that opinion is an unconscionable danger to black teenagers.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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