Last week, the Washington Post ran an opinion piece in which columnist and resident shithead Richard Cohen claims that “Ferguson has become the liberal Benghazi.” Cohen suggests that, just as the GOP-led House committee refuted right-wing conspiratorial claims surrounding Benghazi, the Department of Justice’s investigation in Ferguson proved protesters were wrong, and that “Ferguson was not the racist murder it was thought to be.” Here’s the meat of his argument:
“Did [Michael Brown] deserve to die? No. But did Darren Wilson shoot him for no reason? Again, no. Did the Justice Department later find that Ferguson’s police force was a cesspool of racism, incompetence and corruption? Yes. But did any of that mean that Wilson killed Brown in cold blood or that Brown was shot because he was black? No and no.
“A grand jury studied what happened and did not indict Wilson. Eric Holder’s Justice Department reached the same conclusion. Let me offer another conclusion: If Brown was not criminally shot because he was black, then possibly the cop was accused because he was white. Who was the stereotyped individual here?
“Still, Ferguson became a cause — and has remained one. It is a town of only about 21,000 — a bad day at Yankee Stadium — and yet it has repeatedly been the lead story for many news organizations. It was made to represent institutional racism across the nation, but it is, really, a tiny nondescript place where a supposedly racist and unjustifiable killing by the police did not occur. It does, though, conform to the very keen feelings of people who see white racism everywhere.”
Throughout the article, Cohen is far too focused on the specific details of the Michael Brown shooting, while dismissing the actual grievances of protesters and the mountain of evidence that vindicated them. The problem is, he’s not alone. Many of us suffer from what I like to call a “Law & Order Mentality:” we think about these situations too much like lawyers and not enough like statisticians. We spend so much time picking apart the minutiae of each individual case that we completely miss or ignore the larger trends that they represent. The justice system shows a clear pattern of racial bias, but we can’t point to any single incident as being racially motivated. And this is precisely what protesters are attempting to call our attention to. Even as each of these singular incidents are justified, they paint a dire picture for African Americans that the majority of our nation chooses to ignore.
Cohen’s characterization of protesters’ understanding of Ferguson as “racist murder for no reason” is false and simplistic. The fact that Wilson could justify his actions does not mean that race did not play a role in Brown’s death. Wilson likely did not consciously decide to shoot Brown because he was black, but his blackness probably impacted how Wilson assessed the situation and when he decided that lethal force was necessary. As I have discussed elsewhere, the vast majority of Americans hold some level of implicit bias against black people, and this can absolutely manifest itself in our interactions with black people in real life. This would remain the case even if Wilson were black: black people are just as susceptible to implicit associations of blackness with violence and criminality.
Indeed, Wilson’s defense of his actions (not just what went down, but how he described it after the fact) reflects this. Despite the fact that the 28 year-old Wilson was of similar height and build as the 18 year-old Brown, he still described feeling small, like he was being gripped by Hulk Hogan. Wilson said that Brown looked like a demon, and that he feared for his life despite the fact that he had a gun and Brown was unarmed. While it may be true that Wilson was afraid for his life, the evidence does not suggest that this fear was particularly reasonable. Just because how Darren Wilson responded was not strictly illegal does not mean that it was not wrong. But far too often, our legal system interprets officer discretion as infallible: as long as the officer has an explanation for his actions that is not inconsistent with the evidence, then he is exonerated of any wrongdoing. But what this does is completely ignore the disparate impact of that discretion.
However, despite the fact that the Department of Justice declined to prosecute Darren Wilson for civil rights violations, the report on their investigation of the Ferguson Police Department painted a damning picture of a department wrought with deeply entrenched racism that routinely violated citizens’ rights and targeted African Americans as a means to generate revenue. Far from discrediting the grievances of the protestors, it confirmed rampant systemic and institutional racism within the Ferguson Police Department. Ferguson citizens were living in a de facto police state in which over 75% of its residents had outstanding arrest warrants. Ninety-two percent of those warrants were for African Americans, who were 68% less likely than whites to have their cases dismissed. People (mostly black) were criminalized – targeted, arrested, and fined for the most minor (or even vague) infractions such as “manner of walking” – to generate revenue for the department. Michael Brown’s fate was simply representative of this complete and total control that the police had over the lives of the people of Ferguson.
The federal investigation resulted in officials losing their jobs and local court cases being redirected, yet Cohen’s response seems to be, “move on folks, nothing to see here.” His assertion that this was somehow only limited to Ferguson (whose entire population is equal to “Yankee Stadium on a bad day”) is way off base. This was not just about a single incident of racism in suburban Missouri. The movement adopted Ferguson not because it was an exception, but precisely the opposite: the findings have illuminated the truth behind what many black people have been claiming about the police for decades. Ferguson is not an exception, it is the rule. And the hope is that the media attention behind this particular case that has gripped the nation can allow people to understand this.
Michael Brown may have been adopted as a symbol, but the goal of the movement was not simply to indict Darren Wilson, nor was it to prove that Wilson reacted purely out of racial animus when he fired on Brown. Rather, it was to call attention to the persistence of institutional racism in the criminal justice system, and its disparate – and even lethal – impact on the lives of black people. It was to point out the massive disparities in these types of situations between how white people and black people experience the world and are treated by the police, not only in Ferguson, but across the nation. It was a call for systemic change. It was to assert a fact that Cohen has already put forth: No, Michael Brown did not deserve to die. Whether or not Michael Brown’s hands were up when he was shot six times is inconsequential to this reality.
But Cohen’s response to this institutional discrimination, of course, is to recycle the tired “black-on-black crime” trope:
“Do you think that the African American men who are killed by the police are solely victims of racism? If so, then ignore that, in 2013, about 44 percent of the nation’s murder victims were black — and some 90 percent of those victims were killed by other black people. There is a problem here, and it does not go away by yelling “Racist, Racist” at the numbers.”
I have addressed this before as well, but the 90% statistic is pretty much useless. Not only do white people kill each other at nearly the same rate, but this statistic does not somehow invalidate the grievance against interracial crime or police killings of unarmed black people. People murder each other for all kinds of reasons; usually these are very personal ones. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the vast majority of murders are intra-racial. In cases of black-on-black crime (which white pundits falsely assume black people do not care about), the victims would still be dead even if they were white. They were killed and they were black, but they were not killed because they were black. The same cannot be said when these killings cross racial lines. Many of the victims of the high-profile deaths over the past few years would probably still be alive if they were white. It is their blackness, when combined with the situation, that led people to determine that they posed an imminent threat and that apprehension would be impossible.
Furthermore, even if we ignore for the moment the connection between crime and poverty, and the potential problems with crime data (such as aggressive policing in black communities and increased leniency for white perpetrators), these numbers still do not justify the level of brutality and discrimination that black people face from police. Even if black people really are four times more likely to commit crimes, this does not justify the fact that they are 21 times more likely to be shot by the police. This does not justify the fact that they are far more likely to be stopped and frisked by police despite the fact that white people are actually far more likely to be carrying drugs or illegal firearms when stopped. This does not justify racial profiling that strips them of their right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty – a right that is supposedly a central tenant of the American justice system!
Of course, Richard Cohen has long been a proponent of using crime rates to justify discrimination against blacks. In fact, he has a long and illustrious history of living up to his first name on matters regarding race. As far back as 1986, he has defended jewelry stores’ rights to refuse service to black people due to fear of crime. He defended the NYPD’s racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk practices. He even wrote a column justifying Trayvon Martin’s killing because his hoodie was “a uniform we all recognize.”
Most recently, Cohen came under fire after he said this about New York Mayor-elect Bill DeBlasio and his family:
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?)
Richard Cohen may not want to be called a racist, but it’s pretty clear to me that he has written a lot of racist shit. But perhaps none of this should be surprising coming from a guy who only just discovered that slavery was not “a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks.”
Photo via the Washington Post. Artistic embellishment via Brianna Cox.