I've tried my level damndest to ignore the latest Richard Cohen column controversy, because life is short and Cohen will stumble into another racial contretemps within six weeks or so. And I don't like the idea of a columnist being Mau-Mau'd out of a job because he's a casual bigot. The smarmy-sounding Fred Hiatt defense—that Cohen "isn’t afraid to take on subjects where culture and politics and emotion overlap"—isn't entirely wrong. Past-their-prime white guys have opinions, too.
No, the problem with Cohen's column was that he made an assertion about an entire class of people being racist, and did no work to prove it. Cohen claimed that people with "conventional" views might be spooked by Bill de Blasio's interracial marriage and the social change it represents. "What I was doing was expressing not my own views but those of extreme right-wing Republican tea party people," he told Paul Farhi. "I don’t have a problem with interracial marriage or same-sex marriage." In an interview with the Huffington Post, he asserted that "I was expressing the views of what I think some people in the Tea Party held," though "I don't think everybody in the Tea Party is like that, because I know there are blacks in the Tea Party. So they're not all racist."
That's still quite an assertion about a group of people Cohen didn't even try to talk to for his column. He could have asked Tea Partiers whether they were bothered by Clarence Thomas' marriage to a white woman, given that she took a (short-lived) role as a would-be Tea Party leader in 2009 and 2010. He could have asked about their reaction to FreedomWorks Outreach Director Deneen Borelli, whose husband, Tom, is white. Or, because anecdotal evidence is only worth so much, he could have "taken the Internet express" to Gallup.com and noticed that 85 percent of whites and 70 percent of elderly people are fine with interracial marriage. He could have shelled out for some current political science research, which suggests that "there is no difference between the racial attitudes of the general white population and self-identified tea party members."
He could have. Instead, Cohen made up a claim about a bunch of conservatives probably holding circa-1960 racial views. It's the sort of claim any columnist with sense or a work ethic would probably veto right away, but it jibes with a sterotype of conservatives, so even the publisher of the Washington Post gave it an attaboy.
Brilliant: richard Cohen on why Cruz beats Christie in iowa: http://t.co/Ofl85i5lf1— katharine weymouth (@weymouthk) November 12, 2013
To their credit, conservatives haven't made much of a "poor us!" fuss about the Cohen column. It's offensive to them, sure. But what do they care about a dim-witted columnist who only gets read when he trips over his words like a drunk uncle tumbling over the wedding cake?