Richard Cohen, Michael Bloomberg, and the Suspiciousness of Black Men
I haven’t written anything about the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. Anything I’ve wanted to say directly about the case has been said far better by others. But I did want to weigh in on a tangential matter.
There was a great deal of outcry over an awful column by Richard Cohen (who has a long and undistinguished history) justifying Zimmerman’s actions by insisting that Martin’s wearing of a hoodie made him suspicious. [No link, but here’s Ta-Nehisi Coates] That the Washington Post continues to feel that valuable column space should be taken up by Cohen tells us something important about the Post. It’s perfectly understandable for people to be outraged by Cohen. But what has troubled me is the difference between the reaction to Cohen and another figure who’s tried to justify such things, one who in addition is actually overseeing the policy: New York City Michael Bloomberg.
Bloomberg is undeniably an authoritarian. It’s strange that he’s perhaps best known on this score for his law limiting the size of sugary drinks (forcing those who want more to buy two instead of one, not exactly a grave threat to civil liberties to my mind). But getting beyond that, Bloomberg has overseen NYC’s racist stop and frisk policy.
An analysis by the NYCLU revealed that innocent New Yorkers have been subjected to police stops and street interrogations more than 4 million times since 2002, and that black and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics. Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD’s own reports.
He’s also vigorously resisted accountability for police engaging in these tactics. NYPD has faced so many civil rights lawsuits that federal judges are overwhelmed and changing the rules to accommodate the volume. (Bloomberg’s NYPD also engaging in illegal religion-based surveillance of Muslims, including outside of its jurisdiction without the knowledge of authorities in those places). When Zimmerman, a wannabe police officer, was out patrolling looking for black men to follow and confront, he was imitating what police in many areas actually do, something that NYC has been a leader on. Racist policies (especially, but by no means only, relating to the Drug War) produce the suspiciousness of men of color as much as they are a product of it. Of course, the so-called Stand Your Ground laws also contribute to this sort of Othering, exacerbating a long-standing, serious problem.
Now it is sadly true that often we respond more strongly to those who say things that are racist (or sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc.) than we do to policy. But in this case–we have both!
“One newspaper and one news service, they just keep saying, ‘Oh, it’s a disproportionate percentage of a particular ethnic group.’ That may be. But it’s not a disproportionate percentage of those who witnesses and victims describe as committing the murders,” Bloomberg said.
“In that case, incidentally, I think, we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little,” the mayor said. “It’s exactly the reverse of what they’re saying. I don’t know where they went to school, but they certainly didn’t take a math course, or a logic course.” [my emphasis]
Now, this is deeply dishonest. Stop and frisk has nothing to do with investigating murder leads. It’s about targeted vast numbers of men of color using subjective justifications like “furtive movements”, “casing a victim or location.”, “actions indicative of a drug transaction”, or “wearing clothes commonly used in a crime.” Overwhelmingly neither drugs nor weapons are found. But that shouldn’t surprise us, since the real purpose is, as former NYPD chief and current possible choice for Homeland Security Secretary Ray Kelly is reported to have said, to instill fear into minorities.
To be clear, I don’t mean to conflate harassment and what in any other context would be assault to killing. I do mean to compare the way both involved treating young men of color as presumptively suspicious–this is the thing that both Cohen and Bloomberg have done.
Bloomberg is not alone. My point isn’t just about him. It’s about the fact that he can remain in good standing in liberal circles despite all this. It’s that Ray Kelly can be floated for DHS and get strong support from almost the entire NYC political establishment, and be complimented by the president himself. And NYC, as I said, may be a leader in this, but it is by no means unique.
We tend to focus the most attention on those with the least power, and those we have the least power over. Whether it’s columnists over policy makers, or Democrats raging about Florida or Texas while ignoring New York or California, our discourse seems consistently focused on the least strategically useful places. (Complaining about Southern states, for what it’s worth, is not useful. I’m not suggesting not seeking change in the South–only acting as if the only issues are there). Of course, when it comes to these sorts of things, everything is not strategy. Sometimes, we need to express emotion. Sometimes, we are just reacting. That’s necessary. But when things start to get framed as ‘what do we do now,’ there needs to be a shift. Justice for Martin and his family and his community matters. But so does preventing such incidents in the future. So does challenging the deep policies that make this possible. So does acknowledging that racism is a problem throughout the country.