Richard Cohen’s Conventional Racism

Richard Cohen. 

Courtesy of The Washington Post Writers Group

The liberal Internet has been in a righteously indignant tizzy (my favorite kind) today over a new column from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (there’s even a hashtag, #FireRichardCohen, for ease of expression). Cohen has long been derided for lame op-ed writing and general “unreconstructed,” “power-worshiping” bigotry. But many readers and critics, including my Slate colleague Matthew Yglesias, apparently found today’s piece—a familiar rehearsal of the resistance Chris Christie, a relative moderate, might encounter during a GOP presidential campaign in more socially conservative contests like Iowa and South Carolina—to be the final, actionable offense. Or at least this paragraph from it:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, 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. 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.

The conventional reaction to Gag-Gate has been to brand Cohen a racist (though, interestingly, cries of “homophobe” have been less forthcoming) and to call for Post owner Jeff Bezos to do some personnel reshuffling. But I’m betting that for many, the conventional process preceding that reaction has involved a less than careful reading of the entire piece.  

Let me be clear here—I am not interested in defending Richard Cohen generally against the larger criticisms I mentioned up top. I am definitely not a fan. But I’m also not a fan of a willful-seeming, mob-like misreading of a piece of writing in the service of self-satisfied smugness, especially when the piece—as confusingly written as it is—is worth serious consideration for what it reveals about the troublingly different ways people identify and conceptualize racism in this country.

Before I get to that, though, let’s break down what Cohen actually wrote. The offending paragraph is embedded in a longer segment about the mindless, reactionary social conservatism of Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats and how nasty their insurgence was for a more moderate Democratic Party back in the 1948 election. Cohen calls the similarities to contemporary tea-partying Iowans “ominous,” and warily eyes the trenchant, anti-modern (and politically costly) attitude that can emerge when a group of people perceive their “way of life under attack and they [fear] its loss.” Now, it’s true that he doesn’t condemn this faction as forcefully as he might, but my takeaway from the piece as a whole was that Cohen is none too pleased with what their ascendancy bodes for mainstream conservatism.

Of course, a few highly ambiguous phrases (that probably should have been edited out) in the “gag” sentence make this reading harder, but let’s try. “Conventional” is the most unfortunate word choice, with its connotations of “common sense,” “widely shared,” or “unremarkable”; as many critics have already pointed out, studies show that disapproval of miscegenation is none of those things today. But recall that Cohen has been describing a limited, if still very much extant, mindset that (he at least wants us to believe) is not his own; in that worldview, dislike of interracial marriage is very much conventional, as is dislike of former lesbians—these are literally the conventions of that social group. Tweak your reading from there, and the rest of the sentence feels much less provocative: “must repress” changes from “have to repress because ew!” to “Lord, don’t you know those people must be repressing”; even “gag reflex” makes more sense. After all, people don’t gag when they vomit (that’s called heaving); they gag when they feel like something is being forced down their throats—like, um, modern families named de Blasio who in no way resemble the imaginary, white-bread fantasy social conservatives consider to be “their country.”

I fully understand that some readers will not be willing to give Cohen the benefit of this much doubt, but can we at least agree, contrary to the glut of knee-jerk posts and tweets out there, that this man did not write “I, Richard Cohen, am gagging on white penises in black vaginas, the latter of which was previously not into that sort of thing”? He just didn’t. And while the need for this much parsing is a problem in itself, the simplistic feeding frenzy is starting to feel a little silly—and worse, frustratingly unproductive.   

Racism and how we define it is an issue worth taking seriously, and if Cohen said anything worthy of criticism in this column, it’s his casual claim that the modern GOP, tea party and mainstream together, doesn’t have a race problem. Again, the quote:

“Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, 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.”

Clearly, Cohen is making that judgment in comparison to the open racism of the Dixiecrats and exaggerated charges like Belafonte’s, in which he accused the Koch brothers of being out-and-out “white supremacists.” It’s true that the GOP, especially considered apart from the hard-right faction (an increasingly difficult mental feat, I know), is no longer racist in that way.

But a number of the “troubling” issues Cohen then lists as if they were fairly neutral are, in fact, totally charged with racist meanings. “Expansion of government” equals entitlement programs for, in sizable part, poor people of color—there is a racist component in the conservative refusal to acknowledge structural inequality. “Immigration” equals further demographic/cultural shifts as even more people of color come here to fill necessary but undesirable jobs—there is a racist component to that kind of hypocritical xenophobia. “Secularism” equals the decline of the Christian nuclear family and the rise of more single parent and innovative living arrangements, especially in communities of color, the horror at which is, again, partially racist. And finally, the “mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde,” a particularly arresting formulation, equals a total racist/homophobic freak-out about the fact that people who were long consigned to the aren’t-they-amusing margins are now flouncing right on into the center of American life.     

Cohen is right about one thing: A lot of people (and not only conservatives) in this country are indeed “troubled” by these cultural shifts, but because they do not consciously hate black people just for having dark skin, they do not think they are racist. And yet, due to a host of complicated, ingrained cultural prejudices that are much harder to root out, they functionally are. It’s that kind of insidious racism—not overt disgust at miscegenation—that is truly “conventional” in this country, and it’s Richard Cohen who, in spite of an oafish, messy column, provided a rare opportunity to discuss it. Who cares what it takes to make him gag? We have more important things to do with our mouths. 

Update, 5:25 p.m.: Richard Cohen has revealed to the Huffington Post that neither he nor his column is racist, while his editor, Fred Hiatt, admitted to The Wrap that he should have edited the most controversial sentence more carefully.