Menace 2 Readers: Richard Cohen's Latest Indelicacy

The kindest interpretation of Cohen's riff on the De Blasios is that he has a unique definition of racism. Tine Fineberg/AP

Columnist Richard Cohen is a gaffe king, or maybe a marketing genius. The veteran Washington Post contributor’s latest faux pas -- a column on the GOP that either excused racism or was racist -- begs the question: Is it deliberate, or is Cohen's foot just super-glued into his mouth?

“Today’s GOP is not racist,” Cohen wrote, “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.” He continued: “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.”

The kindest interpretation here is that Cohen doesn’t use the same definition of racism as most Americans; by his definition, revulsion at interracial marriage simply counts as “conventional views.” And certainly, Cohen’s understanding of racism has made his columns the target of liberal ire in the not-too-distant past. After seeing the film 12 Years a Slave, Cohen seemed almost surprised to discover that “slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks.” Over the summer, he caused a firestorm by sympathizing with George Zimmerman’s fear of a black teenager in a hoodie and defending New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy.

The other, and easily more insidious, explanation of Cohen’s comment is that he himself can’t help but feel physical revulsion himself at the sight of interracial marriage.

Let’s take the forgiving view first. Say Cohen is simply trivializing racism, or at least drawing into question its definition: How malicious does one have to be before crossing over into racist territory? Cohen seems to think that a “gag reflex” at interracial marriage – a form of nuptials that 87 percent of Americans have no problem with – does not qualify. To most people, however, opposing interracial marriage is pretty racist. As Ta-Nehisi Coates distilled Cohen’s words for The Atlantic: “I'm not racist. I just don't recognize my country. Also, the sight of you, and your used-to-be-lesbian black wife, and your brown children make me sick to my stomach. It's not like I want to lynch you or anything.”

By giving a pass to people who find interracial marriage repulsive, Cohen is going along with the leniency toward racist attitudes that has earned the Tea Party a reputation for, to put it bluntly, racism. His column comes just three days after Sarah Palin compared American slavery to the national debt. “Our free stuff today is being paid for by taking money from our children and borrowing from China,” the former Alaska governor said at an Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s fundraiser. “When that money comes due—and this isn’t racist, but it’ll be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to be beholden to the foreign master.”

But given the Tea Party’s seeming tone-deafness on racism, why are readers -- and Twitter users -- so upset with Cohen, rather than the group he’s theoretically defending? That brings us back to scenario No. 2: Cohen is simply expressing his own views about race.

Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post’s editorial page editor, offered up a third interpretation of Cohen’s article. “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 told TheWrap Tuesday. "I erred in not editing that one sentence more carefully to make sure it could not be misinterpreted." 

Ironically, and regardless of his intentions, Cohen does a disservice to the ultra-conservative movement he is describing: Roughly 22 percent of Americans identify as Tea Party, according to a September Gallup poll. Only 11 percent of Americans still oppose interracial marriage.