Opinion writer July 15, 2013

I don’t like what George Zimmerman did, and I hate that Trayvon Martin is dead. But I also can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize. I don’t know whether Zimmerman is a racist. But I’m tired of politicians and others who have donned hoodies in solidarity with Martin and who essentially suggest that, for recognizing the reality of urban crime in the United States, I am a racist. The hoodie blinds them as much as it did Zimmerman.

One of those who quickly donned a hoodie was Christine Quinn, the speaker of the New York City Council. Quinn was hardly a lonesome panderer. Lesser politicians joined her and, as she did, pronounced Zimmerman a criminal. “What George Zimmerman did was wrong, was a crime,” Quinn said before knowing all of the facts and before the jury uncooperatively found otherwise. She was half-right. What Zimmerman did was wrong. It was not, by verdict of his peers, a crime.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

Where is the politician who will own up to the painful complexity of the problem and acknowledge the widespread fear of crime committed by young black males? This does not mean that raw racism has disappeared, and some judgments are not the product of invidious stereotyping. It does mean, though, that the public knows young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime. In New York City, blacks make up a quarter of the population, yet they represent 78 percent of all shooting suspects — almost all of them young men. We know them from the nightly news.

Those statistics represent the justification for New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk program, which amounts to racial profiling writ large. After all, if young black males are your shooters, then it ought to be young black males whom the police stop and frisk. Still, common sense and common decency, not to mention the law, insist on other variables such as suspicious behavior. Even still, race is a factor, without a doubt. It would be senseless for the police to be stopping Danish tourists in Times Square just to make the statistics look good.

I wish I had a solution to this problem. If I were a young black male and were stopped just on account of my appearance, I would feel violated. If the police are abusing their authority and using race as the only reason, that has got to stop. But if they ignore race, then they are fools and ought to go into another line of work.

The problems of the black underclass are hardly new. They are surely the product of slavery, the subsequent Jim Crow era and the tenacious persistence of racism. They will be solved someday, but not probably with any existing programs. For want of a better word, the problem is cultural, and it will be solved when the culture, somehow, is changed.

In the meantime, the least we can do is talk honestly about the problem. It does no one any good to merely cite the number of stop-and-frisks involving black males without citing the murder statistics as well. Citing the former and not the latter is an Orwellian exercise in political correctness. It not only censors half of the story but also suggests that racism is the sole reason for the policy. This mindlessness, like racism itself, is repugnant.

Crime where it intersects with race is given the silent treatment. Everything else is discussed — and if it isn’t, there’s a Dr. Phil or an Oprah saying that it should be. Crime, though, is different. It is, like sex in the Victorian era (or the 1950s), an unmentionable but unmistakable part of life. We all know about it and take appropriate precaution but keep our mouths shut.

At one time, I thought Barack Obama would bring the problem into the open and remove the racist stigma. Instead, he perpetuated it. In his acclaimed Philadelphia speech on race, he cited his grandmother as “a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street.”

How about the former Barry Obama? When he was a Columbia University student living on the lip of then-dangerous Harlem, did he never have the same fear?

There’s no doubt in my mind that Zimmerman profiled 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.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.

Ann Telnaes animation: The cowboy attitude of ‘stand your ground’ laws. (Ann Telnaes/The Washington Post)