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