Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Richard Cohen May Not Be a Racist....

But he faces a bigger problem, in that he's not very smart.
What O.J. Simpson did was wrong. It was not, by verdict of his peers, a crime.
Of course he wrote "Zimmerman", but the logic behind the assertion is the same, as it would be if he said "Casey Anthony" or "Michael Jackson". Cohen is not alone in confusing a verdict of "not guilty" both with a declaration of innocence and with an expression about what conduct constitutes a crime. He's been around more than long enough to know better.
I don’t like what George Zimmerman did, and I hate that Trayvon Martin is dead. But I also can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize. I don’t know whether Zimmerman is a racist. But I’m tired of politicians and others who have donned hoodies in solidarity with Martin and who essentially suggest that, for recognizing the reality of urban crime in the United States, I am a racist. The hoodie blinds them as much as it did Zimmerman.
My father wears a hoodie. As he recovers from his knee replacement surgery, I hope he doesn't bump into Zimmerman lest "the uniform" make poor Georgie afraid that he's going to get clobbered with a cane. The part that Cohen omits from his statement, "wearing a uniform we all recognize", is that the uniform isn't "wearing a hoodie" - it's "wearing a hoodie while black". And while I'll do my best to take Cohen at his word, for most people who are making similar statements about Trayvon Martin I'm not sure how important the hoodie is to the uniform.

A few years ago one organization or another ran a public service ad in which a black youth and his friends go to a store, and the storekeeper is intimidated by their appearance. The commercial concludes with one of the youths approaching the storekeeper, who is anticipating that it might be a robbery, slaps his money on the counter, thanks the storekeeper and leaves. It was meant to remind the Cohens, Zimmermans, and even those made less nervous about young black men in "uniform" that they should not assume the worst based upon wardrobe and skin color. And that's fair enough. The fashion choices of youths can be confusing to us older folk. If you want to dress in a manner reminiscent of a street thug, people are going to make assumptions about you and your boisterous friends. And sometimes it's fun to have people make assumptions.

But Martin? We know exactly what his "uniform" looked like the day he died - if you want to see it, you can click through to the image from this page. Frankly, as I look at that picture I have a very hard time continuing to take Cohen at his word. (Watch out, dad - your hoodie is scarier than Trayvon's.) To me it looks like the sort of thing you might pull on if the weather was a bit chilly, a bit drizzly and you wanted to be warm. But between the hoodie and the white skinny jeans, Cohen sees a scary "uniform". Cohen attempts to restore my faith in him:
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? This does not mean that raw racism has disappeared, and some judgments are not the product of invidious stereotyping. It does mean, though, that the public knows young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime.
Wait... I thought this was about a uniform... about hoodies. So... perhaps what Cohen means is that he gets scared when he sees young black men, and thus believes everybody else should either follow his lead and invest heavily in Depends undergarments, or follow Zimmerman's lead and buy a gun.
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. We know them from the nightly news.
In New York City there are about 8.2 million people. By Cohen's measure, that's a bit over two million African Americans, so let's say 1 million African American males of various ages. There were 414 homicides in New York City in 2012. As of December 28, 2012 there had been 1,353 shootings that year. Cohen says that 78% of the suspects were African American, so that means roughly 1,055 shootings. So, assuming that nobody was a suspect in more than one shooting, roughly a 0.1% chance that an African American male in New York city was a suspect in a shooting. Or... whatever "young black males" means... maybe that bumps it up to 0.3%? That's Cohen's statistical case for his apparent fear that he's going to get shot by every young black man he passes in the street?

Oh, but it gets better,
Those statistics represent the justification for New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk program, which amounts to racial profiling writ large. After all, if young black males are your shooters, then it ought to be young black males whom the police stop and frisk.
Cohen seems to believe that all shootings in New York City are random. That is, young black men are carrying guns around and, for no good reason, might 'pop a cap' into a random New York Times columnist. A better columnist might have looked at the statistical result of stop and frisk.... a roughly zero percent impact on the number of shootings in the city. Needless to say, shooting incidents are not evenly distributed throughout the city - "they are closely associated with larger geographic crime patterns". In 2011, 43% of criminal shooting incidents occurred in Brooklyn, and just shy of 29% in Bronx. My guess is that if Cohen manages to avoid getting involved in drug deals, or walking through high crime neighborhoods alone at night while flashing the type of watch that has historically been among his obsessions (even then, with there being a high probability that he would still have his watch at the end of his jaunt, and virtually no chance that he would be shot), he's pretty safe.
Still, common sense and common decency, not to mention the law, insist on other variables such as suspicious behavior. Even still, race is a factor, without a doubt. It would be senseless for the police to be stopping Danish tourists in Times Square just to make the statistics look good.
I'm curious about something. How would Cohen propose that the police could tell, simply by looking at somebody, that the person is from Denmark? What about these folks? Wait - I get it - they're not wearing hoodies, right?

Cohen presents the... factually challenged claim,
Crime where it intersects with race is given the silent treatment. Everything else is discussed — and if it isn’t, there’s a Dr. Phil or an Oprah saying that it should be. Crime, though, is different. It is, like sex in the Victorian era (or the 1950s), an unmentionable but unmistakable part of life. We all know about it and take appropriate precaution but keep our mouths shut.
There are only 130,000,000 hits on Google for "role of race in crime", and a mere 2.4 million hits on Google News - clearly this is something nobody talks about.

Cohen rambles,
If I were a young black male and were stopped just on account of my appearance, I would feel violated. If the police are abusing their authority and using race as the only reason, that has got to stop. But if they ignore race, then they are fools and ought to go into another line of work.
So kids shouldn't be suspected of being criminals merely because they're black - but in the name of "common sense and common decency" we should "insist on other variables such as suspicious behavior". Thus, Cohen is able to conclude,
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.
Understandably suspected of what? If it defies "common sense and common decency" to have suspected Trayvon Martin of criminal activity merely because he was young and black, what is it that Cohen believes constitutes the "other variables such as suspicious behavior" that Zimmerman saw to immediately make him think of Martin as a "f---ing punk" and an "asshole" of the type who "always gets away"?

Oh, that's right. The hoodie.


  1. hell all you have to do is watch a true crime show on TV and you'll see plenty of young blacks in their "uniform"

    1. "True crime" - like... Cops? I don't think Cohen gets any closer to "true crime" than "The Sopranos".

      Cohen says we should look at mugshots, which... don't in fact show very many hoodies. He also compared his reaction to a black kid in a hoodie to what it would be like "if you're a black guy in the South and you come around the corner and you see a member of the Klu Klux Klan".