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Richard Cohen’s privilege, explained

The Washington Post columnist and alleged sexual harasser is bitter about having lost a job to a woman more than 40 years ago.

Richard Cohen Washington Post photo

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wants you to know that he believes in better treatment for women, African Americans, and Latinos in the workplace, but he’s also tired of too much diversity and privilege talk.

“Diversity in the workplace is an overdue goal,” he writes, “but it can amount to a quota by another name. Choose a woman because she’s a woman and you’ve eliminated a man because he’s a man.”

The problem with overreach here is then further explicated through this chilling example:

Once I was passed over for a newsroom position I very much wanted. “We needed a woman,” an editor told me. I said nothing, although I seethed. In short order, I was made a columnist, so I didn’t even get a chance to cry. But the instant rush of utter unfairness lingers. The woman chosen was qualified, but her qualification had nothing to do with her sex. I was told she was just a needed statistic.

Here, of course, one thing that jumps out at me is that even with decades to think it over, Cohen doesn’t consider the possibility that he was simply being let down easy, and the woman was actually chosen because her work was better (he also complained about this back in 1995). He also doesn’t consider the possibility that diversity can be a bona fide organizational need. It’s not just that you want to hit certain statistics; you actually want the breadth and depth of perspectives in your overall organization that can only come from having an appropriate range of diversity.

At any rate, the utter rush of unfairness lingers, even though he’s had a pretty sweet columnist gig for more than 40 years. And as he writes, he’s not the only one who feels this way.

Some of the resentment in the white, male electorate is based on the conviction that the deck is suddenly stacked against them. That’s Trump’s constituency, right there. (He got about 63 percent of the white male vote.) Someone has to tell those guys how deceived they are, how they have benefited all these years from being male and white. Forgive them if they do not understand.

The downpour of social media outrage that Cohen is in for now will, no doubt, only further convince him of his persecution. But Cohen’s whole career in media is in fact a case study in white male privilege.

Some Richard Cohen backstory

Cohen has become extremely well known over the years, for example, for his not-so-woke views on race:

There was also the time back in 1998 when he allegedly sexually harassed Devon Spurgeon, at the time a 23-year-old editorial aide. He has obviously continued to write his column for the past 20 years, and he and his powerful friends in journalism cast him as the victim in this situation.

Warren St. John wrote then in the New York Observer:

Post management recently concluded that Ms. Spurgeon suffered a “hostile working environment” but not sexual harassment, and later changed the finding to conclude that Mr. Cohen had committed “inappropriate behavior.” Mr. Cohen was moved from the New York bureau’s 12th-floor office at 251 West 57th Street to Newsweek’s offices 10 floors higher.

Sources close to Mr. Cohen and Ms. Spurgeon said neither is particularly pleased with the outcome. Mr. Cohen feels he has been the victim of a witch-hunt atmosphere. “It’s not like he groped someone,” said [New Yorker writer Ken] Auletta. “He’s being accused of saying things that are insensitive. Well, grow up.… This is Dick Cohen being Dick Cohen, and politically correct people being wusses.” Mr. Auletta expressed concern that recent press reports about the dispute might taint his friend’s reputation. “If you accuse someone of being a sexual harasser or a racist or an anti-Semite, the reporting never catches up with the story,” he said. “The charges are always so damaging.” Colleagues said both Mr. Cohen and Ms. Spurgeon feel the Post management’s public silence on the matter has prolonged the ordeal and only damaged them further.

With the courage of his convictions, Cohen wrote a 2010 column about Clarence Thomas that managed to be both sexist and racist, unfairly maligning Thomas’s intelligence vis-a-vis the other conservative justices by saying he “stands nearly alone on the court in his shallowness of his scholarship” while defending him from harassment charges by arguing that “when it comes to his alleged sexual boorishness, he stands condemned of being a man.” He also blamed Miley Cyrus for the Steubenville rapes.

Richard Cohen epitomizes privilege

There’s a phrase I learned a few years back that goes, “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality can feel like oppression.”

Cohen’s career, I think, exemplifies the wisdom contained in that aphorism. He’s a guy who’s enjoyed a well-compensated, high-status, easy-to-do job for decades who nonetheless quite sincerely feels put upon by the fact that he lost a job to a woman sometime in the 1970s and sometimes get called a racist because he thinks young black men should be subject to discriminatory treatment.

He feels, on these grounds, a profound affinity for Trump voters. And because the demographic of put-upon older white men does, in fact, exert disproportionate influence over American social and economic institutions, there continues to be a well-compensated and not very taxing job for him into his late 70s.