Cohen Steps in it

WaPo columnist Richard Cohen earlier this week:

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.

Pardon?  If the “conventional views” in question are such that one believes that persons of different races ought not marry because, well, they are from different races is that not the very definition of racism?

There is little doubt, by the way, that there are many citizens of the United States (of the white, older persuasion) who do, in fact have very negative reactions to interracial couples and biracial children and who long for a different era where politics and society were dominated by whites.  However, such folks are driven not by “conventional views,” they are driven by some pretty deep seated racism that looks at a biracial couple and doesn’t see two human beings who are in love with one another, they see that one of the members of that couple has a different melanin content than the other.  Deeming that color imbalance as a reason to “gag” over the couple is pretty high up on the “is this racist?” scorecard. 

And I understand that Cohen is defining what he thinks others think on these matters.  However, the paragraph ends up reading as if “repress[ing] a gag reflex” at the site of a biracial couple is “not racist.”  This is a highly problematic formulation.

And to clarify:  I do not think that the GOP or the Tea Party is, writ large, racist.  However, I do think that a lot of racists and persons with racist views adhere to those groups.  However, that isn’t really the issue here.

See also Ta-Neshi Coates: Richard Cohen in Context.  The key graf:

The problem here isn’t that we think Richard Cohen gags at the sight of an interracial couple and their children. The problem is that Richard Cohen thinks being repulsed isn’t actually racist, but "conventional" or "culturally conservative." Obstructing the right of black humans and white humans to form families is a central feature of American racism. If retching at the thought of that right being exercised isn’t racism, then there is no racism.

Of course, Cohen’s understanding of such matters in questionable, given that he wrote last week:

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.

You don’t say.

Paul Farhi at WaPo reports and comments on the controversy here:  Controversy over Richard Cohen’s comments on the de Blasio family.

FILED UNDER: Media, US Politics, , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Jim Henley says:

    Between Richard Cohen and the reaction to Richie Incognito (especially on Fox Sports), we’ve learned a lot about white racial discourse this week:

    White person has a racist reaction to something (“gag reflex”): “Hey, it’s not like he said the N-word!”

    White person says the N-word: “Hey, but what’s the context?”

    It’s like we’re bulletproof, man. Got an excuse for all occasions.

    But remember: failure to take personal responsibility for one’s behavior is a problem of black culture!

  2. bill says:

    good snag Steven! i read some of that last night, they even went on about how nearly 90% of the country has no issue with interracial marriages. so i guess just 10+% do, small numbers either way you look at it. that some media wonks want his head on a plate for saying things like that is even more troubling, especially since he’s never been considered some right-winger!

  3. Rick Almeida says:


    …especially since he’s never been considered some right-winger!”

    Cohen has a history of making racist remarks since at least 1986.

    He’s also defended Roman Polanski and the Steubenville rapists.

    He may not be a “right-winger,” whatever that is, but he’s certainly a sad, craven old man.

  4. Boyd says:

    While I’ve often disagreed with Mr Cohen over the years, I’ve never seen him be quite so incoherent as he is in the linked column. He utterly failed at articulating his point, so we’re left to guess what he meant, and what he truly believes.

  5. grumpy realist says:

    @bill: The question is whether Richard Cohen gets a pass because of Doddering Old Fart Syndrome (in which case RC is going to need a (young) editor vetting everything he writes), or we take him at face value, in which case the guy is simply….clueless.

    RC comes across as the sort of nitwit liberal who lives in a gated complex but thinks he’s got a great handle on race relations because he “had a black friend” 20 years ago.

  6. Rick Almeida says:


    I would argue that his track record indicates what he believes pretty clearly.

  7. grumpy realist says:

    P.S. Isn’t Richard Cohen the one who came out with a column on how useless math is for women to learn?

  8. Boyd says:

    @Rick Almeida: I agree about his track record. My point was about this particular column and its incoherence. He wrote to tell us something, but instead of understanding his point, we’re left scratching our heads, saying, “Wha…?”

  9. john personna says:

    I’ve been in “discussion” this week with the odd group of racial-libertarians who show up over at Marginal Revolution. They are a group who still think there can be “legitimate inquiry” into “race” and “superiority.”

    Racism is not dead, it isn’t even hiding.

  10. Rick Almeida says:

    @john personna:

    I often see your comments on MR, and you are a far braver and more tolerant man than I to wade through some of those comment threads. The guy who refers to other people as “muds” is particularly enlightening.

  11. Neil Hudelson says:


    Ten percent of the population would mean approximately 32 million people. If you think that 32 million people “gagging” at a biracial couple is “small numbers either way you look at it” then you are part of the problem. If you are not part of that 10% yourself (which I have a feeling might be the case) then you are certainly enabling them.

  12. Jim Henley says:

    I think Marginal Revolution may have the skeeviest commenters of any generally non-skeevy blog.

  13. Rob in CT says:

    Cohen is as Cohen does.

    Some more from the Coates blogpost you mentioned:

    Context can not improve this. “Context” is not a safe word that makes all your other horse-shit statements disappear. And horse-shit is the context in which Richard Cohen has, for all these years, wallowed. It is horse-shit to claim that store owners are right to discriminate against black males. It is horse-shit to claim Trayvon Martin was wearing the uniform of criminals. It is horse-shit to subject your young female co-workers to “a hostile work environment.” It is horse-shit to expend precious newsprint lamenting the days when slovenly old dudes had their pick of 20-year-old women. It is horse-shit to defend a rapist on the run because you like The Pianist. And it is horse-shit for Katharine Weymouth, the Post’s publisher, to praise a column with the kind of factual error that would embarrass a j-school student.

    If you click through to Coates’ place, you will see he has hyperlinked some of those “horseshits” to articles Cohen has written over the years.

    The guy sucks at his job. Quite frankly, his piece should be insulting to both sides of the political divide. He asserted – diretly contrary to the evidence – that GOPers/TPers/Iowan primary voters with “conventional views” would find an interracial family icky. And he phrased it in such a way as to be really, really forgiving of this purportedly conventional (but actually fringe) view. Total, complete faceplant. And his boss thought it was brilliant.

  14. grumpy realist says:

    @Rob in CT: Yes–you’ve pointed out something even scarier–not just that RC thought that his article was just dandy, but so did the WP’s main editor.

    “Clueless” doesn’t even begin to describe the situation.

  15. Ron Beasley says:

    Cohen’s advancing senility has been obvious for years. It’s long past the time when he should have been put out to pasture.

  16. wr says:

    @grumpy realist: Actually, the WP editor said this column was “brilliant.”

  17. bill says:

    @Rick Almeida: racist or racial? the race card is so overplayed these days, and cohens a-bag anyway- no links needed.

    @grumpy realist: well if the huff post wants his head i guess that’s that? left leaners usually get free passes, it’s nothing new.

    @Neil Hudelson: well since we can’t legislate morality (either way, and it is a 2 way street) then what else can you do? i’m sure there’s a certain percentage of people in every race who insist on “racial purity”- i call them idiots.

    @john personna: see above!

  18. MarkedMan says:

    When I lived in Baltimore I initially spent as much time on the Post’s website as on the NYTimes’ but Cohen and the other beltway groupthink tribe drove me away. I switched my dead tree subscription to the Times and found that there was only one blogger I was interested in on the website who they eventually drove away, I suspect for being “biased. Biased in the WT’s case means any deviation from both sides do it mentality. But I suspect they are more affected by a basic market force than those outside the beltway (heh): It is unlikely someone will cancel a subscription because you reported “Senator Schumer claimed that the Ryan budget doesn’t add up” or “Senator Paul called Obama’s “You can keep your plan” statement false”, but if they report the actual facts (Ryan’s budget plans have always been the purest form of nonsense, Obama’s claim is now obviously false) they would have angry people jamming the switchboards

  19. bill says:

    the funniest part of this is how deblasio’s current wife “used to be” a lesbian…..i didn’t think that was a choice, the current stream of “thought” is that you’re born hetero/homo or transgender…..
    so i guess this just throws out some of that bs anyway, unless deblasio is that one cool guy who can turn a lesbo into a hetero! my hero… if. rail away now kids, you got some ‘splainin’ to do.

  20. john personna says:


    There really is no scientific basis for the political concept of “race.” One way to prove that is to just note that “race” is defined differently by different racists around the world.

    And none of them map to what we now know about human patterns of migration out of Africa. In one breakdown (National Geographic’s Genographic Project) there are nine regional affiliations, but no modern nation maps to them directly. Instead every population has a different mix of affiliations, based on past migrations.

    So, the “race card” is pretty honestly played when anyone asserts “race” in America, based on skin tone, and then ties it to behavior, ability, politics … anything.

  21. john personna says:

    BTW, one thing I learned from that study … I always thought that my Danish roots were Northern European farmers. Amusingly:

    This component is likely the signal of the earliest hunter-gatherer inhabitants of Europe, who were the last to make the transition to agriculture as it moved in from the Middle East during the Neolithic period around 8,000 years ago.

    We were actually the last people in Europe to give up bows and arrows. And we didn’t even do that by inventing, or even learning, agriculture. Tribes who knew farming, genetically linked to the Middle East, moved in and blended.

    Modern Danes are 16% Southwest Asian.

  22. bill says:

    @john personna: eloquent, but in reality the dreaded race card is thrown way too much in the press. seems every time a black person is wronged by a white person it’s due to racism- yet not vice versa.

    thx for the nat geo link, i thought i’d been around the world but my bucket list just got bigger!

  23. john personna says:


    I have noticed a cute trick lately, or the attempt at a cute trick. Someone will do something racist. Someone will call him on it. And then (preposterously) someone will say to the second person “since you can see race in that, YOU are the racist.”

    That’s really what I think is playing out today, when you hear the “race card.”

    It is racists or their fellow travelers trying to insulated themselves from criticism.

  24. john personna says:

    Example: Is voter disenfranchisement racist? Absolutely.

  25. Grewgills says:


    the funniest part of this is how deblasio’s current wife “used to be” a lesbian…..i didn’t think that was a choice, the current stream of “thought” is that you’re born hetero/homo or transgender…..

    People exist on a spectrum; not everyone is set at an end point (strictly hetero or homo). She was bi from the beginning.

  26. bill says:

    @Grewgills: you don’t know that- only she knows what she wants. i doubt if she just woke up one day and tired of fish, wanted sausage. it’s bs anyway-

  27. Grewgills says:

    Did you just want to repeat what I said in as crude a manner as possible, or did you have something to add?

  28. bill says:

    @Grewgills: i could have been cruder- “spectrum”….really?

  29. An Interested Party says:

    i could have been cruder- “spectrum”….really?

    The perfect encapsulation of the person who typed those words…

  30. bill says:

    @An Interested Party: the gist of it is that the senate passed a blll pertaining to homosexual rights a few weeks back- yet it appears that these kind of people (the “former lesbian”) may just use it for their own benefit. once again, the common theory is that you’re born that way- it’s not just a switch you throw when you feel like it. the potential abuses must be considered when debating the laws merits.

  31. @bill: Ah yes, that well known phenomenon wherein persons pretend to be gay for all the benefits.

  32. Jim Henley says:

    @bill: The whole point of rights is to use them for your benefit. They’d be pretty crappy rights if you couldn’t.

  33. Grewgills says:


    the potential abuses must be considered when debating the laws merits.

    What are these supposed abuses you are afraid of?

  34. bill says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: you saw chuck & larry i guess!

    @Jim Henley: use sure, abuse…no.

    @Grewgills: do u need a map?

  35. Jim Henley says:

    @bill: Are you saying that “a couple straight dudes might pretend to be married to get on each other’s insurance” is a show-stopping concern set against preventing harassment, termination and worse for gay and trans employees?

  36. bill says:

    @Jim Henley: no, ENDA is a feel good bill that would be very hard to enforce anyway- and people like deblasio’s wife are a reason why. there would be no law firm taking any ENDA type case unless they got their money up front- as it would be nearly impossible to prove anything. every hr dept. in the country would have their policies updated to avoid any sort of liability/litigation and it would probably be a negative thing for openly gay/trans people on the hiring end.

  37. Jim Henley says:

    @bill: So now you’re saying there isn’t a problem after all?

  38. Grewgills says:


    and people like deblasio’s wife are a reason why

    The dreaded bisexual, bane of HR departments.
    Why do you think it will be more difficult to protect the rights of people with different sexual than protecting the rights of people with different races? How would bisexuals make that more difficult? Be specific. Maybe give an example of a potential abuse you see coming on the horizon.