Longtime Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has found himself at the center of an Internet firestorm after publishing a column describing how it’s “conventional” and “not racist” for people to react to New York Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio’s biracial family by having to “repress a gag reflex.”
The column, published Tuesday morning by the Post, purports to be an analysis of New Jersey Republican Chris Christie’s chances at securing the GOP presidential nomination, but meanders into an analysis of identity politics in the Republican Party (emphasis added):
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.
As Cohen’s colleague Ezra Klein points out, it’s hardly “conventional” to be nauseated by interracial marriage between blacks and whites, which a majority of Americans have supported since the mid-1990s. About nine of 10 Americans support interracial marriage, according to a Gallup poll from 2011. That includes about nine out of 10 Democrats and Independents, and about eight out of 10 Republicans. Older Americans, those over 65, are the least likely to approve, but even a majority of them (66%) support interracial marriage.
More people than ever are in interracial marriages and having mixed children. The current President of the United States, Barack Obama, is biracial. Clarence Thomas, the only black justice on the Supreme Court, is married to a white woman. When it comes to race, people’s self-reported views are always complicated than the numbers suggest. Nevertheless, in the abstract, most Americans, regardless of age, race or political views, are accepting of marriage between blacks and whites. A majority of Americans at this point also support same-sex marriage, so Cohen’s alarm over McCray’s past lovers seems as anachronistic as his characterization of Americans’ views on interracial marriage.
This isn’t the first time Cohen has courted controversy over racial matters. There’s long list of things Cohen doesn’t consider racist: They include denying service to black customers in retail stores (1986) or cab drivers doing the same thing (1986). More recently Cohen has broadened his view of things that aren’t racist, like the New York Police Department’s application of stop-and-frisk, recently struck down by a federal judge for violating the Constitution’s equal protection clause. Same with the idea that Trayvon Martin was “understandably suspected because he was black.” Last week Cohen figured out after watching the critically acclaimed film 12 Years a Slave that slavery in the United States was way worse than he thought.
Cohen defended himself from criticism on Tuesday in comments to the Huffington Post, insisting that he is not racist. “It’s not who I am. It’s not who I ever was. It’s just not fair. It’s just not right,” he said.
Responding to an inquiry from Business Insider, Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt simply said Cohen was being “misinterpreted” because of an editing error.
“Anyone reading Richard’s entire column will see he is just saying that some Americans still have a hard time dealing with interracial marriage,” Hiatt said. “I erred in not editing that one sentence more carefully to make sure it could not be misinterpreted. ”
Hiatt’s response doesn’t address Cohen’s reductive and erroneous characterization of McCray’s sexual orientation. Cohen, for his part, told Huffington Post he believes the column is being misinterpeted because of poor word choice in describing opposition to interracial marriage as “conventional.”
Cohen has come under some understandably harsh criticism, notably from Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic and Hamilton Nolan at Gawker. On Twitter, media reactions to Cohen’s column ranged from gently correcting to outright mockery, some using the hashtag #firerichardcohen:
On the other hand, Washington Post Publisher Katherine Weymouth seemed to think Cohen’s column was “brilliant,” having tweeted so late last night:
Perhaps she’ll elaborate on that later.
This post has been updated.