An Open Letter to Mr. Richard Cohen, Washington Post Columnist
Dear Mr. Cohen:
I’m writing you to discuss your latest column, “Racism vs. Reality” dated July 15, 2013 and to parse a point of logic with you—your considerably flawed logic concerning racial profiling. The gist of your column is that it’s unfair not to expect white people to be afraid of black men because they commit a lot of crime.
In your column, you wrote:
….There’s no doubt in my mind that [George] Zimmerman profiled [Trayvon] Martin and, braced by a gun, set off in quest of heroism. The result was a quintessentially American tragedy — the death of a young man understandably suspected because he was black and tragically dead for the same reason. [Emphasis mine.]
Mr. Cohen, I don’t even know you, and I’m sure you mean well, but I’d like to address the issue that you raise of “understandably suspected” black men. And I’d like use your own logic to explore what might be the aftermath of racial profiling of white people by black people. Let’s call it the “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” logic of racial profiling.
As someone who is the survivor of violence, I understand post-traumatic stress. It’s a horrible thing to look at someone who resembles the person who committed violence against you or someone you love; you tremble, overcome with fear.
My mother, an African American woman, was born in the segregated South—in Georgia—in the 1930s and remembers when a group of white men lynched four black people in a town not far away from her. There is a book written about this lynching called Fire in the Canebrake: the Last Mass Lynching in America. Those white men never went to jail for their crime.
My mother’s great-grandmother Mandy was an enslaved woman whose first memory is of her father’s being sold down south. She never saw him again. It was a source of great pain for her. Later, however, she entered into a relationship with a white man and had a child by him; the man financially supported her biracial child and gave the child his last name, an unusual occurrence in the last 1800s.
My mother grew up in a racially terrorized South—and yet, she belongs to a predominantly white church and has several good, white friends, but according to your logic, because of Mama’s background, she is supposed to be terrified of every white person she sees, to seethe with anger or fear or some sort of traumatic emotion, remembering these painful moments from her childhood, to cook up some sort of retaliation in her Big, Black, Racial Trauma Pot. Certainly, my great-great-grandmother never would have made the romantic choice that she did.
Let’s explore the other side of my heritage: not only am I black, I’m of Native American heritage; my direct ancestors weren’t removed on the Trail of Tears, but surely relatives of mine were. In case you aren’t familiar with the Trail of Tears, it’s the journey where thousands of Native Americans were forced to relocate in the nineteenth century, after their land was stolen by the United States government.
Much of the Southeastern land that belonged to Natives was used for the cultivation of short-staple cotton; Eli Whitney made possible the separation of the seed from the boll with the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, and thus, Native folks were pushed off their own property, and more black folks were enslaved to pick that cotton.
As a person of Native descent, should I suspect that every white man appearing on my porch—say, to check my gas meter, spray my house for ants, or even just inform me about the teachings of Jesus Christ (even if it is too early in the morning for me to be awake and ready to receive piety)—is there to yank me through my front door, take me clear across the country to land that’s even flatter and more unattractive than where I live now and make me stay there, and on the journey, knowingly hand me a smallpox infested blanket to wrap myself in?
According to your logic, I should.
There are all kinds of ways I could isolate myself even further: I’m a woman who is a rape survivor and men commit over 90% of the rapes in this country. What if every woman who was raped decided she never wanted to be touched or approached by a man again, let alone, want him for her lover or husband or the father of her children?
When I met the man with whom I fell in love and married, should I have screamed at him in his face that he was a potential rapist, or pulled out a dull nail file and tried to stab him—just in case he might have been a rapist?
According to your logic, I should.
Mr. Cohen, if someone like me—the descendant of and relative to people who were lynched, raped, sold, branded, spat on, physically displaced, called names, terrified again and again for over three hundred years—can learn to take every white person (or every man of any race) I meet on a case-by-case basis, to think the best of someone until he or she shows me differently then Mr. Cohen, how dare you—a person who looks a lot like the people who lynched, raped, sold, branded, spat on, physically displaced, verbally abused, and terrified my people for over three hundred years—tell me that it’s common sense to feel that a black man is “understandably” a criminal because of crime statistics that don’t even reach back forty years?
In the words of my mother, what kind of sense did you make in your column? Nonsense, that’s what kind.
According to your flawed sense of logic, what would your whiteness mean to me– if I couldn’t believe in a better time, if I didn’t have faith in humanity’s ability to positively grow, if I didn’t possess a need to love my fellow man and woman, regardless of what he or she looks like, in the brightest day or the darkest of night?
At some point, you, I, and all the people who make up a “we” must take the risk of not blaming people because of past unpleasant, traumatic, or even violent experiences suffered at the hands of someone else. It may sound naïve, but if we Americans don’t decide to accumulate courage to say “enough” we will continue to live in disharmony, distrust, and yes, hatred surrounding race in this country.
Is that how you want to live the rest of your life? I know I don’t.
We all have a bone to pick, in the ancient or recent past. Every single one of us, regardless of race or gender, can locate a grievance of some kind against someone else. My pain is no greater than anyone else’s, and yours is no greater than mine.
We can honor the past transgressions against us personally or against our blood ancestors, but it is not fair to blame or hurt a person who has done us no immediate wrong in the here and now, just for inhabiting the skin color or gender or religion (or so on) of person who did the original crime.
Mr. Cohen, I’m not here to argue the Zimmerman trial verdict; that trial is over, and however I may feel, I have to continue to live by my principles. What I am here to do is to remind you of what it means to be a more loving and hopeful human being, in the long run. I hope this letter has helped you on that journey.
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers