Richard Cohen: How Does Someone So Clueless About Race Survive 45 Years in DC Journalism?

One has to wonder whether or not Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen is ingesting mind-altering substances before he writes each of his columns, because they are becoming increasingly bizarre in recent years. His last two columns show a lack of racial and historical awareness that is absolutely stunning for someone with Cohen’s pedigree.

Last week’s column was a review of the film “12 Years a Slave,” and Cohen essentially marveled at the revelation in the Steve McQueen film that, well, slavery was notably less like “Gone With the Wind” than he had originally thought, and might have actually been pretty bad for a lot of slaves:

I sometimes think I have spent years unlearning what I learned earlier in my life. For instance, it was not George A. Custer who was attacked at the Little Bighorn. It was Custer — in a bad career move — who attacked the Indians. Much more important, slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks. Slavery was a lifetime’s condemnation to an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children. Happiness could not be pursued after that.

Steve McQueen’s stunning movie “12 Years a Slave” is one of those unlearning experiences. I had to wonder why I could not recall another time when I was so shockingly confronted by the sheer barbarity of American slavery. Instead, beginning with school, I got a gauzy version. I learned that slavery was wrong, yes, that it was evil, no doubt, but really, that many blacks were sort of content. Slave owners were mostly nice people — fellow Americans, after all — and the sadistic Simon Legree was the concoction of that demented propagandist, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a lie and she never — and this I remember clearly being told — had ventured south to see slavery for herself. I felt some relief at that because it meant that Tom had not been flogged to death.

Really? Cohen is 72 years old, not 117. He was born and raised in Far Rockaway, Queens, and graduated from Hunter College and Columbia University in New York City in the 1960s. It’s not like he was born and raised in the Jim Crow south and was homeschooled by racists. But even if he had, he has been working as a reporter and columnist for the Washington Post since 1968; it’s difficult to impossible to believe that he is so racially and historically isolated that he has no idea that we committed genocide against Native Americans, and not the other way around, or that he could have avoided the reality that slavery was not just a denial of rights, but an extremely violent and brutal practice. Did he not see “Roots,” at least? Even the “kindest” slave owners brutalized slaves, to keep them in line. I knew this by the time I was in fourth grade in Baltimore, MD. How does someone make it to 72 years of age and not learn these basic lessons?

Especially damning is that Cohen has apparently spent his time with The Post – a period which has spanned 45 years as of this year – lacking the curiosity that even the most basic journalism requires. This week’s column seems to build on the theme of historical ignorance established the previous week, but is even more appalling, because it ignores the realities of a period of time during which Cohen has been an active journalist.

This week’s column was about why Chris Christie probably can’t win the Republican nomination in 2016. His basic premise is sound, and I tend to agree. To win, Christie would have to appeal to the Tea Party, which may not be possible, because he’s seen as “too moderate.” But then he says the following:

Iowa not only is a serious obstacle for Christie and other Republican moderates, it also suggests something more ominous: the Dixiecrats of old. Officially the States’ Rights Democratic Party, they were breakaway Democrats whose primary issue was racial segregation. In its cause, they ran their own presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond, and almost cost Harry Truman the 1948 election. They didn’t care. Their objective was not to win — although that would have been nice — but to retain institutional, legal racism. They saw a way of life under attack and they feared its loss.

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.

Okay… knowing the history of the Republican Party over the past 50 years, how is it possible for someone to note that Dixiecrats were racist, but today’s GOP isn’t? The Dixiecrats didn’t just disappear; they were welcomed in the Party of Lincoln with open arms, and they and their descendants are now an integral part of the Tea Party, which contains a large number of racists, and promotes racism everywhere it goes. While there may be some non-racists in the Tea Party, they are direct descendants of the Dixiecrats, for the most part, but they also tolerate and encourage racism from others. And frankly, so does the entire GOP these days.

I challenge anyone to come up with a Tea Party criticism of President Obama that isn’t, at its heart, racially charged. It’s difficult to find any legitimate criticism of Obama from the Tea Party at all; but it’s nigh on impossible to find one that isn’t based on his being black. Check out these pictures for some examples of this. You can’t look at these and say the GOP isn’t racist. Look at their recent history, and their attitude toward all people of color, and it’s simply not possible to claim “the GOP is not racist.” Not only that, but his claim that the GOP isn’t racist, they’re just too apoplectic to handle the reality that an interracial marriage and multiracial children is no longer a big deal is so contradictory as to defy common sense.

Cohen’s evaluation of the “deeply troubled” nature of the Republican Party is actually somewhat accurate, but it points to the source of the Party’s racism. Their concern over the expansion of government, immigration, secularism, and “the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde” points to an ideology that longs to return to a bygone era. They want everything the way it was when white men dominated everything – to them, the “good old days.” One component of the “good old days” is that people of color “knew their place,” and that’s a key aspect of everything the Republicans say…

Sorry, Richard, but that’s racist. Of course, what should we expect from someone who apparently only realized that slavery was brutal within the last few weeks?

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