July 24, 2013 Racist Profiling

                                                                                                                                                                                  Click here for a pdf version.

The Banality of Richard Cohen and Racist Profiling

Ta-Nehisi Coates      Jul 17 2013, 7:00 AM ET, The Atlantic

Yesterday Richard Cohen wrote this:

“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.

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.

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 wish I had a solution to this problem. 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.”

It is very important to understand that no one is asking the NYPD to “ignore race.” If an officer is looking for an specific suspect, no one would ask that the NYPD not include race as part of the description. But “Stop And Frisk” is not concerned with specific suspects, but with a broad class of people who are observed making “furtive movements.”

With that said, we should take a moment to appreciate the import of Cohen’s words. They hold that neither I, nor my twelve year old son, nor any of my nephews, nor any of my male family members deserve to be judged as individuals by the state. Instead we must be seen as members of a class more inclined to criminality. It does not matter that the vast, vast majority of black men commit no violent crime at all. Cohen argues that that majority should unduly bear the burden of police invasion, because of a minority who happens to live among us.

Richard Cohen concedes that this is a violation, but it is one he believes black people, for the good of their country, must learn to live with. Effectively he is arguing for a kind of racist public safety tax. The tax may, or may not, end with a frisking. More contact with the police, and people who want to be police, necessarily means more deadly tragedy. Thus Cohen is not simply calling for my son and I to bear the brunt of “violation,” he is calling for us to run a higher risk of death and serious injury at the hands of the state. Effectively he is calling for Sean Bell’s fianceé, Trayvon Martin’s parents, Amadou Diallo’s mother, Prince Jones’ daughter, the relatives of Kathryn Johnston to accept the deaths of their love ones as the price of doing business in America.

The unspoken premise here is chilling — the annihilation of the black individual. To wit:

“Jews are a famously accomplished group. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates.”

I think we would concede that it would be wrong of me to assume that every Jewish person I meet is good at chess, physics or medicine. This year I am working at MIT where a disproportionate number of the students are Asian-Americans. It would be no more wise for me to take from that experience that individual Asian-Americans are good at math, then it would be for anyone to look at the NBA and assume I am good at basketball. And we would agree with this because generally hold that people deserve to be seen as individuals. But by Cohen’s logic, the fact of being an African-American is an exception to this.

Perhaps the standards should be different when it comes to public safety and violence. But New York City’s murder rate is as low as it has been in 50 years. How long should a racist public-safety tax last? Until black people no longer constitute a disproportionate share of our violent criminals, one assumes. But black people do not constitute such a group — victims of hundreds of years of racist state policy constitute that group. “Black on Black” crime is the racecraft by which the fact of what was done to us disappears, and the fact of our DNA becomes criminalized.

I think Richard Cohen knows this:

“The problems of the black underclass are hardly new. They are surely the product of slavery, the subsequent Jim Crow era and the tenacious persistence of racism. They will be solved someday, but not probably with any existing programs. For want of a better word, the problem is cultural, and it will be solved when the culture, somehow, is changed.”

This paragraph is the American approach to racism in brief. Cohen can name the root causes. He is not blind to history. But he can not countenance the import of his own words. So he retreats to cynicism, pronouncing the American state to bankrupt to clean up a problem which it created, and, by an act of magic, lays it at the feet of something called “culture.”

To paraphrase the old Sidney Harris cartoon, the formula for weak-sauce goes something like this

(Forced Labor + Mass Rape)  AUCTIONING YOUR CHILDREN
+ (Poll tax + Segregation + Grandfather clause)  THE KLAN
+ (Redlining + Blockbusting + Race Riots)  CUTTING YOU OUT OF THE NEW DEAL
= “Meh, you figure it out.”

An capricious anti-intellectualism, a fanatical imbecility, a willful amnesia, an eternal sunshine upon our spotless minds, is white supremacy’s gravest legacy. You would not know from reading Richard Cohen that the idea that blacks are more criminally prone, is older than the crime stats we cite, that it has been cited since America’s founding to justify the very kinds of public safety measures Cohen now endorses. Black criminality is more than myth; it is socially engineered prophecy. If you believe a people to be inhuman, you confine them to inhuman quarters and inhuman labor, and subject them to inhuman policy. When they then behave inhumanely to each other, you take it is as proof of your original thesis. The game is rigged. Because it must be.

You should not be deluded into thinking Richard Cohen an outlier. The most prominent advocate of profiling our current pariah classes — black people and Muslim Americans — is now being mentioned in conversations to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Those mentions received an endorsement from our president:

Kelly hasn’t spoken about whether he wants the post, but in an interview with Univision, the president said he’d want to know if Kelly was considering a job change.

“Ray Kelly’s obviously done an extraordinary job in New York,” Obama said. “And the federal government partners a lot with New York, because obviously, our concerns about terrorism often times are focused on big-city targets, and I think Ray Kelly’s one of the best there is.

What you must understand is that when the individual lives of those freighted by racism are deemed less than those who are not, all other inhumanities follow. That is the logic of Richard Cohen. It is the logic of Barack Obama’s potential head of the DHS. This logic is not new, original or especially egregious. It is the logic of the country’s largest city. It is the logic of the American state. It is the logic scribbled across the lion’s share of our history. And it is the logic that killed Trayvon Martin.


Josh Jasper

When I was living in Singapore, I was in the minority as a white person, but when a white person committed a crime, white teens were not pulled over and harassed by the police. Were they were doing it wrong? Of course not. No white American living anywhere outside the US would tolerate being treated the way our police treat black people.

Cohen’s argument is easily demolished, and has a clear core of white supremacy.

Cohen has won 4 Pulitzer Prizes. My mind stops after that fact. I can go no further. I’m lost.


I lived in South Africa for about two years and experienced some pretty terrifying official harassment. While on holiday in Mozambique, my wife and I traveled to the capital, Maputo. On the very first night, we walked out of the hotel to find a place to have a drink and not fifty yards from the entrance, a soldier with an AK-47 (or some other sort of assault rifle) shouted at us, ran across the avenue, and demanded to see our passports (in English, no less). As we naturally didn’t have them on us, we were threatened with a fine, and failing to pay that was going to result in jail. A truck with some seats bolted in the cab then pulled up, along with three to four other soldiers with AK-47s. After a few tense minutes of negotiation where he told me to get into the truck and I refused to pay or go to jail, they left. Twice in the next three days this happened again (though this time with police officers who only had pistols). I also watched other white families get harassed and pay fines.

Harassment of white Americans happens


You weren’t harassed because you were white, you were extorted because you were a foreign tourist in a country that is still recovering from a pretty ruinous civil war, and your whiteness marked you out as someone who probably had a little more money than others. The fact that this happened right outside a hotel backs this premise up. This sort of thing happens even in developed countries, try going through customs in Dubai without being shaken down for a few grand.


I actually have been to Dubai, but didn’t get shaken down. Been to lots of places, and the shakedowns only happened in India and southern Africa. But I don’t see how their civil war, which ended more than 20 years ago and they no doubt are still recovering from, excuses such behaviour.

I may not have been harassed because I was white, but I was profiled because I was white; indeed, I was accurately profiled as being a foreigner and having money to pay fines/bribes. Similar to what Mr Coates was arguing, to these officials, I was reduced to the characteristics of my race.

The wrongs are different, as you note, and do not compare to systematic profiling. I don’t mean to be pedantic, but at no point did I argue they did, either; I was responding to a previous commentator who argued that it never happens to white Americans.


But your story somewhat confirms Josh Jasper’s point. Yes, harassment of white Americans happens. But you, in fact, did not “put up with” the treatment of the Mozambican police offer – and you were able to enforce your rights in large part due to your status as an American citizen. See how that works for a black teenager stopped by a cop in the U.S.


Ah, yes, rereading it now, I agree with you; I did stand my ground, knowing they were not very likely to do anything to me. That said, I cannot stress enough that four soldiers with AK-47s is enough to get most Americans handing over all their cash

July 10, 2013 Atheist and the Need for Church

 Click here for a pdf version.

In the Bible Belt, Offering Atheists a Spiritual Home


BATON ROUGE, La. — It would have been easy to mistake what was happening in a hotel ballroom here for a religious service. All the things that might be associated with one were present Sunday: 80 people drawn by a common conviction. Exhortations to service. Singing and light swaying. An impassioned sermon.

There was just no mention of God.

Billed as Louisiana’s first atheist service and titled “Joie de Vivre: To Delight in Being Alive,” it was presided over by Jerry DeWitt, a small, charismatic man dressed all in black with slick, shiny hair.

“Oh, it’s going to be so hard to not say, ‘Can I get an amen?’ ” he said with a smile, warning people that this was going to be more like church than they might expect. “I want you to feel comfortable singing. And I want you to feel comfortable clapping your hands. I’m going to ask you to silence your cellphones, but I’m not going to ask you to turn them off. Because I want you to post.”

As Mr. DeWitt paced back and forth, speaking with a thick Southern accent, his breathy yet powerful voice occasionally cracked with emotion. The term may be a contradiction, but he is impossible to describe as anything but an atheist preacher.

Mr. DeWitt acts so much like a clergyman because he was one.

He was raised Pentecostal in DeRidder, La., a small town near the Texas border. In 2011, after 25 years as a preacher, he realized he had lost all connection to the religious point of view that had defined most of his life. He left the church and found himself ostracized in his hometown and from his family. Since then, Mr. DeWitt, 43, has become a prominent advocate of atheism, giving lectures around the region and providing an emotional counterpoint to more academic atheist exponents like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

With Sunday’s service — marking the start of Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles, which Mr. DeWitt called a full-fledged atheist “church” — he wanted to bring some of the things that he had learned from his years as a religious leader to atheists in southern Louisiana.

The percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans appears to be on the rise. A 2012 Pew Research Center study found that while only about 6 percent identified as atheist or agnostic, they were among nearly 20 percent classified as religiously unaffiliated. That was up from 15 percent in 2007, a greater increase than for any traditional faith.

Mr. DeWitt counts himself among the hard-line atheists, but he believes that something may be lost when someone leaves the church — not just the parts about God, but also a sense of community and a connection to emotion.

“There are many people that even though they come to this realization, they miss the way the church works in a way that very few other communities can duplicate,” he said in a phone interview. “The secular can learn that just because we value critical thinking and the scientific method, that doesn’t mean we suddenly become disembodied and we can no longer benefit from our emotional lives.”

Some in the audience had a difficult time coming to atheism. Joshua Hammers, a member of an atheist organization in Lake Charles, said he had been completely separated from his community and social life when he left the Pentecostal church in which he was raised. For him, there was something comfortable, a reminder of childhood, about hearing Mr. DeWitt preach.

“We were at the Reason on the Bayou conference, and everything else was just like a lecture,” Mr. Hammers said, referring to a secular rally held in April at Louisiana State University. “Then Jerry got up, and he was just, you know, preaching the message. Most other atheist leaders are academics and intellectuals, and Jerry’s not like that. He’s just talking to your heart.”

Services are gaining traction as outlets for organized atheism in places like London, Houston, Sacramento and New York, as well as at universities with humanist chaplains. In a deeply conservative region like the Deep South, they can serve a vital purpose: providing a sense of camaraderie in what many have found to be a hostile environment for nonreligious people.

“Here, we have a very strong sense of community,” said Russell Rush, a former youth pastor from DeRidder. “When you go into an actual church, it’s almost like having a family reunion. When you leave that lifestyle, and leave that church life behind, a lot of times you can feel ostracized. Things like this let fellow atheists and agnostics know that they’re not alone.”

Mr. DeWitt sees services like his as giving a human shape to a broad intellectual movement that is in its infancy. He believes that he and the others in the room are building something meant to last.

“Though this movement has had starts and stops throughout world history, right now it’s important to remember that we are young,” he said after a singalong to a song of that name by the band Fun. “Someday, what you are doing will become normal. Isn’t that a feeling?”

June 23, 2013  New York Times

                                                              The Benefits of Church


ONE of the most striking scientific discoveries about religion in recent years is that going to church weekly is good for you. Religious attendance — at least, religiosity — boosts the immune system and decreases blood pressure. It may add as much as two to three years to your life. The reason for this is not entirely clear.

Social support is no doubt part of the story. At the evangelical churches I’ve studied as an anthropologist, people really did seem to look out for one another. They showed up with dinner when friends were sick and sat to talk with them when they were unhappy. The help was sometimes surprisingly concrete. Perhaps a third of the church members belonged to small groups that met weekly to talk about the Bible and their lives. One evening, a young woman in a group I joined began to cry. Her dentist had told her that she needed a $1,500 procedure, and she didn’t have the money. To my amazement, our small group — most of them students — simply covered the cost, by anonymous donation. A study conducted in North Carolina found that frequent churchgoers had larger social networks, with more contact with, more affection for, and more kinds of social support from those people than their unchurched counterparts. And we know that social support is directly tied to better health.

Healthy behavior is no doubt another part. Certainly many churchgoers struggle with behaviors they would like to change, but on average, regular church attendees drink less, smoke less, use fewer recreational drugs and are less sexually promiscuous than others.

That tallies with my own observations. At a church I studied in Southern California, the standard conversion story seemed to tell of finding God and never taking methamphetamine again. (One woman told me that while cooking her dose, she set off an explosion in her father’s apartment and blew out his sliding glass doors. She said to me, “I knew that God was trying to tell me I was going the wrong way.”) In my next church, I remember sitting in a house group listening to a woman talk about an addiction she could not break. I assumed that she was talking about her own struggle with methamphetamine. It turned out that she thought she read too many novels.

Yet I think there may be another factor. Any faith demands that you experience the world as more than just what is material and observable. This does not mean that God is imaginary, but that because God is immaterial, those of faith must use their imaginations to represent God. To know God in an evangelical church, you must experience what can only be imagined as real, and you must also experience it as good.

I want to suggest that this is a skill and that it can be learned. We can call it absorption: the capacity to be caught up in your imagination, in a way you enjoy. What I saw in church as an anthropological observer was that people were encouraged to listen to God in their minds, but only to pay attention to mental experiences that were in accord with what they took to be God’s character, which they took to be good. I saw that people were able to learn to experience God in this way, and that those who were able to experience a loving God vividly were healthier — at least, as judged by a standardized psychiatric scale. Increasingly, other studies bear out this observation that the capacity to imagine a loving God vividly leads to better health.

For example, in one study, when God was experienced as remote or not loving, the more someone prayed, the more psychiatric distress she seemed to have; when God was experienced as close and intimate, the more someone prayed, the less ill he was. In another study, at a private Christian college in Southern California, the positive quality of an attachment to God significantly decreased stress and did so more effectively than the quality of the person’s relationships with other people.

Eventually, this may teach us how to harness the “placebo” effect — a terrible word, because it suggests an absence of intervention rather than the presence of a healing mechanism that depends neither on pharmaceuticals nor on surgery. We do not understand the placebo effect, but we know it is real. That is, we have increasingly better evidence that what anthropologists would call “symbolic healing” has real physical effects on the body. At the heart of some of these mysterious effects may be the capacity to trust that what can only be imagined may be real, and be good.

But not everyone benefits from symbolic healing. Earlier this month, the youngest son of the famed pastor Rick Warren took his own life. We know few details, but the loss reminds us that to feel despair when you want to feel God’s love can worsen the sense of alienation. We urgently need more research on the relationship between mental illness and religion, not only so that we understand that relationship more intimately — the ways in which they are linked and different — but to lower the shame for those who are religious and nonetheless need to reach out for other care.

T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford and the author of “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God,” is a guest columnist.