Richard Cohen is a columnist at the Washington Post. This week, he wrote Racism vs. Reality, which portends to look frankly at the situation of urban crime in America, but really defends racial profiling on account of his being afraid of black youths. Cohen continues the hard work of forging a fearful imaginary portrait of the young black man in America. It’s a terrible piece.
This has been recognized by others. I recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates response, The banality of Richard Cohen and racist profiling, if you’re looking for one. But there are many others that address the race issues in Cohen’s piece. I’ll leave that to those writers.
I want to talk about the hooded sweatshirt.
Here’s Richard Cohen:
“I don’t like what George Zimmerman did, and I hate that Trayvon Martin is dead. But I also can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize. I don’t know whether Zimmerman is a racist. But I’m tired of politicians and others who have donned hoodies in solidarity with Martin and who essentially suggest that, for recognizing the reality of urban crime in the United States, I am a racist. The hoodie blinds them as much as it did Zimmerman.”
Cohen later backed this up in an interview with Politico about the hoodie: “It’s what’s worn by a whole lot of thugs. Look in the newspapers, online or on television: you see a lot of guys in the mugshots wearing hoodies.”
Richard Cohen thinks that the hooded sweatshirt is “a uniform we all recognize” as suspicious, and it is enough for him to “understand” why George Zimmerman thought that Trayvon Martin was part of “the painful complexity” of the “widespread fear of crime committed by young black males”. Anytime someone uses the hooded sweatshirt to show they understand the realities of crime or youth or race in America, be forewarned: what follows will at best be stupid, and at worst, racist.
Connecting the murder of Trayvon Martin to the article of clothing that is the hooded sweatshirt demonstrates above all that Richard Cohen lacks intellectual rigor. That’s the only way I can understand the above paragraph. If you really believe that Trayvon Martin’s clothing marked him as a target, you are at fault. The connection Cohen makes between the Martin’s hooded sweatshirt, the donning of hoodies by politicians, and the “uniform we all recognize” demonstrates an acceptance of cheap, uncritical thinking about the problems of violence, race, and youth in America.
Do you know how I know this? Because hooded sweatshirts are wonderful. Not only are they stylish, capable of conveying any image or message one might wish to communicate, but they are comfortable and effective articles of clothing. Really. I own four. Maybe Cohen, and Geraldo, and others who think the hoodie deserves partial responsibility in the death of Trayvon Martin just don’t know about hooded sweatshirts? Maybe in Washington, DC its too hot for Cohen to concern himself with a hooded sweatshirt and thus he has not considered the realities of the hoodie. If so, he’s missing out.
So, here’s a lesson: The hooded sweatshirt is ubiquitous. It is worn by anyone looking for a cozy and efficient layer to keep out the cold, or anyone who likes hooded sweatshirts. While it is true that black youths wear hoodies, it also true that everyone else everywhere in America wears hoodies. Every goth and punk kid in America owns a black hoodie. Every athlete in America owns a sporty- hoodie. Every kid everywhere regardless of their identifying social markers, owns a hoodie. Adults also wear hooded sweatshirts. In the Midwest, pretty much every person owns a hoodie because in the fall and winter, the hoodie is the perfect garment to keep one warm and block the wind.
The hooded sweatshirt is not a “uniform” that marks one as suspicious, Mr. Cohen. It’s not a uniform at all. If a lot of people in mug shots are wearing hoodies, it’s likely because the hoodie is just that common. At the risk of oversimplifying, the hooded sweatshirt is a piece of clothing worn by nearly all groups of people and conveying no meaning. What a hoodie in the United States does is mark one as a person in the United States who owns a hooded sweatshirt. If you see a person walking down the street with a hood up, this what you should infer: that is a human person wearing a hooded sweatshirt.
This is a lot to write about the hoodie. But Richard Cohen assures us he is not racist. Which means all this must be about the hoodie. Because otherwise it’s all just about a young black man. And if the “uniform” Cohen meant was black skin, well, then he’s a racist.
The idea that Richard Cohen finds the donning of a hoodie to somehow justify anything that happened that night in Florida conveys a lot more about how frightened Richard Cohen is of the world than his understanding of race. Or reality.