Richard Cohen’s Racial ‘Groundhog Day’

His recent comments were appalling, but his views on slavery reveal the collective amnesia plaguing white America.

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Richard Cohen
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen

Copyright Sigrid Estrada, 2001 902 Broadway New York, NY 10010

Tempting as it is to join in the fray, I’m taking no part in the online beatdown that Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen is suffering for his ill-advised comments about interracial relationships. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb and a host of other brilliant young writers have already got that covered. Besides, I’ve got my own bone to pick with something Cohen recently wrote that I think is much more important.

That’s the piece Cohen produced a couple weeks ago after watching 12 Years a Slave, the magnificent movie based on Solomon Northup’s horrifying account of being kidnapped and sold down the river. Seeing it evidently removed the scales from Cohen’s eyes about the true savagery of human bondage. 

“I could not recall another time when I was so shockingly confronted by the sheer barbarity of American slavery,” Cohen wrote. The brutality depicted in the film finally made him realize that slavery was not “a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks” and that slave owners weren’t “mostly nice people.”  

Well, either that’s a bald-faced lie or Cohen has been living through a racial version of Groundhog Day in which supposedly liberal white folks like him wake up every day with no memory about America’s history of racial injustice. 12 Years a Slave is a powerful and evocative film, but the fact that slavery is, in Cohen’s words, “an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children” is hardly a revelation to anyone who has paid even the slightest amount of attention to popular culture over the last few decades. You can’t be as ignorant about slavery and its aftermath as Cohen pretends to be unless you’re suffering from a case of self-inflicted racial amnesia.

That’s what I call the period of forgetfulness that seems to set in every time a cultural or real-life event is said to have brought America face-to-face with its bigoted history. It happened after the miniseries based on Alex Haley’s Roots appeared on ABC in 1977. And again, in 1989, with Glory, the film about black soldiers during the Civil War that I find as stirring as 12 Years. And again, in 1997, with Amistad, the story of a slave-ship revolt. And again, most recently, with Django Unchained.

And those are just some of the movies. If Cohen had tuned in to PBS, he could have watched brilliant documentaries like Eyes on the Prize, which debuted in 1987, or The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, the six-part series hosted by The Roots editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., that is airing now.

Or he could have picked up a newspaper and read about all the soul-searching that was supposedly taking place after such events as the O.J. Simpson trial way back in 1995, the sadistic dragging to death of James Byrd Jr. in 1998, the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo in 1999 and on and on, up to the acquittal this past summer of the would-be vigilante who killed Trayvon Martin.

In each and every one of these cases, white people like Cohen professed shock and amazement over finally learning about how nasty America has always been to black people. The cycle is depressingly familiar. White people start digging into their family histories and fess up about how much they profited from exploiting our ancestors. We hear heartfelt calls for a national conversation about race that’s supposed to lead to greater understanding and, more importantly, action to address the lingering effects of centuries of white supremacy. This time, they proclaim, it’s going to be different.

And then white folks like Cohen revert to Groundhog Day mode and forget all about whatever they claim to have learned until another shock comes along and stirs them once again from their reverie. They choose to forget because remembering the truth about America’s history of injustice might oblige them to do something about it. It’s much easier to be a phony like Cohen and pretend that you just didn’t know.

Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor at The Root.

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