On November 12, 2013, The Washington Post, one of the largest and most respected newspapers in America, published an opinion column suggesting that interracial marriage is outside of the cultural norm. Richard Cohen has been frequently criticized for trading in racist stereotypes in his columns for The Post, and he has responded to this criticism not by dialing down the racism, but by kicking it up a notch. "Today’s GOP is not racist," Cohen wrote today in a column that sought to evaluate the Republican id on the eve of the 2016 primary season, "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." So against the avant-garde, not racist. Got it. Can you be more specific about what's troubling these regular, normal people?
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?) 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.
To be fair, Cohen isn't explicitly endorsing a ban on miscegenation. And he isn't claiming that the sight of an interracial couple causes him to heave—just other people. Normal people. But his belief that an issue that was settled by Loving v. Virginia in 1967 is still avant-garde in 2013 shows just how far behind Cohen is. This kind of bigotry would be wrong if it was accepted by most people. But that's not the case. According to a Gallup poll released in July, 87 percent of Americans approve of marriage between black people and white people. Even in the South, 83 percent of Americans approve of interracial marriage.
Cohen has a long history of endorsing racist stereotypes about black people. Gawker's Hamilton Nolan has traced Cohen's unevolving views on race. (In 1986, for example, Cohen wrote that it was okay for jewelry store owners to refuse to let black men into their stores.) After the trial over the Trayvon Martin shooting, Cohen argued that George Zimmerman was right to assume Martin was a criminal, because he was a black male. Cohen said he was tired of political activists "who essentially suggest that, for recognizing the reality of urban crime in the United States, I am a racist." The shooting, while sad but understandable: "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." So it's not surprising that Cohen would express the views he did on Tuesday. The world he lives in is painted by all sorts of racial stereotypes. What is surprising is that no one at The Washington Post saw this "gag reflex" paragraph and said, "Hey, there's gotta be a better way to say what you're trying to say."
But don't fret! There is hope for Cohen yet. Last week, he wrote about 12 Years a Slave, a movie about slavery that finally, for the first time in his life, convinced Cohen that slavery was a bad thing and "not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks." (As The Atlantic Wire's Arit John noted, Cohen was "born and raised in the Confederate backwoods of New York City [and] went on to attend segregated and backwards institutions like NYU and Columbia.") And so perhaps a movie night is all Cohen needs to change his perspective. To get over his fears of urban crime, Cohen should throw out Death Wish and pick up Fruitvale Station. For a new perspective on interracial marriage, Cohen could check out Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a film that could ease Cohen into the avant-garde of 1967.
Update: Inspired by Nick Summers, here are some of the many things that trigger Richard Cohen's gag reflex.
Hugs. "Even the handshake is gone. Now you get hugged and have to hug in return. People I have just met for dinner hug me when it's over. I liked the handshake. It was manly: Be firm, look the other guy in the eye. This is what I was taught as a kid, and I was taught, further, that you could take a man's measure by his handshake. Strong meant strong. Weak meant weak. Eye contact meant honesty, integrity. Now someone you hardly know and who has not bathed since the day before yesterday comes up and hugs you, calls you Rich, says he loves you: I love you, man. My gag reflex is triggered." February 18, 2013.
The Iraq War. "All of this is more or less standard stuff, a convention of any organization being a grand opportunity to lie. This is particularly true of our two great political parties, which have not, when you come to think of it, survived for so long by leveling with the American people. But the point does come -- or at least it ought to -- when the gag reflex kicks in. I reached that point when, in speech after speech, the war in Iraq was described as a defensive one in which America had no choice. This total and purposeful misreading of history came out of the mouth of almost every speaker, including the sainted John McCain." September 2, 2004.
NPR and poor people. "It's not, mind you, that I cannot abide change or that I think 'Morning Edition' could not be improved. Some mornings, in fact, I gag at the very NPRness of its report, yet another in-depth piece proving once again that life is unfair and that many poor people live in poverty." March 25, 2004.
New York City. "Narcissus saw his reflection in a clear pool of water and fell in love with himself. This city sees its reflection in movies and in the media and just swoons. It has been transformed from its abrasive former self -- wisecracking, cynical and world weary -- into something of a tame theme park, safe for children, tourists and movie crews on location. It's enough to make you gag." August 19, 2003.
God. "In America, references to God are near universal. Nary a public event can take place without someone mentioning the deity, often in a way to make you want to gag -- enlisting the Almighty on the side of a particular sports team, for instance." June 13, 1995 (via Nexis.)
George H. W. Bush. "This is not leadership but its opposite. But following the polls is precisely the way Bush got to be president: Willie Horton, the Pledge of Allegiance and all that jazz. Bush may think that what worked for him once will work again. Why lead when simply by stifling the gag reflex you can reach your goal by pandering?" November 27, 1990 (via Nexis).