Washington 'power couple' takes on race

William and Janet Cohen want to use their experience as a mixed-race couple to start an open discussion on race in America.

Rob Chaddock
Let’s talk: Janet and William Cohen each grew up as outsiders because of race and religion. Today, they’re a very successful professional couple. But at a time when the presidential contest has raised questions about a “post-racial” America, there still are clear differences in how blacks and whites see race relations in the United States today.
Rob Chaddock
Let’s talk: Janet and William Cohen each grew up as outsiders because of race and religion. Today, they’re a very successful professional couple. But at a time when the presidential contest has raised questions about a “post-racial” America, there still are clear differences in how blacks and whites see race relations in the United States today.
SOURCE: Gallup Poll/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

Married in the US Capitol, William S. Cohen and Janet Langhart Cohen have all the trappings of a Washington Insider Power Couple.

A former Republican senator from Maine, he served as secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration and is chairman and CEO of the Cohen Group. A former model and television journalist, she is CEO of Langhart Communications.

But he is white and she is black, and what led them to convene a two-day conference on race and reconciliation in America, opening Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington, is a common experience as outsiders.

"I wanted to have this conversation [on racial reconciliation] practically my whole life," says Janet Cohen, citing an incident when she and her mother were denied service at a restaurant in her hometown of Indianapolis. She recalls her mother telling her, "Janet, you're a little colored girl and people are not going to like you because you're colored." The slights and barriers due to race became a constant in her life – not insurmountable, but ever present, she says.

Raised in Bangor, Maine, by a Jewish father and an Irish Protestant mother, William Cohen learned early on that his father's name exposed him to anti-Semitic epithets. But to others, he wasn't Jewish enough. When a local rabbi denied the boy a bar mitzvah because his mother would not convert to Judaism, Cohen tore the mezuza off a chain around his neck and flung it into the Penobscot River.

"I would soon learn that it was easier to break a chain from my neck than it would be to break away from the bigotry of others," he later wrote in "Love in Black and White: A memoir of race, religion and romance," coauthored with Janet.

The Cohens convened this conference to help promote an honest, civil discussion on racial reconciliation at a time that many Americans see the nation moving beyond race, especially with the prospect of a black candidate winning the Democratic presidential nomination and even the White House.

"We're heading towards a post-racial moment. There's no question that there's progress on a number of fronts, one of which is public opinion," says pollster John Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International and one of about 100 participants at the conference.

When people say they are going to vote for a minority candidate, such as Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois, they actually do, he says. Also, more Americans are responding "yes" to such questions as: Do you live within a block of someone who is African-American or have you attended a dinner party with someone who is African-American?

The Cohens note that the fact that they could be married is a sign of progress that the country has made on racial reconciliation. But they add that it took a Supreme Court decision as recent as 1967 to make that possible. "Just seven years before we met it would have been illegal for us to have been married in many parts of this country," says William Cohen.

Moreover, high-profile African American success stories may also fuel a false sense that the need for racial reconciliation is ebbing. The Cohens note comments they hear such as: "Why are the blacks angry? Why is there such a sense of rage? I'm not responsible. I've lived a good life. I'm a moral person. As for slavery: That's 300 years ago. We've had 30 years of affirmative action – everything is equal now. You've got a black man running for president, you've got Condi Rice, you've got Colin Powell, you've got Oprah, so what's your problem?"

"The problem is that there are a very few who have made it to the top and they are completely separated from what is the reality on the ground for the vast majority of black people who will not have that chance," Mr. Cohen adds.

A recent Gallup Poll shows significant gaps persist in how black and white Americans understand race relations. When pollsters in 1963 first began asking the question, "Do you think that relations between whites and blacks will always be a problem?" some 26 percent of black respondents, compared with 44 percent of whites, said yes. In a poll last month, white Americans were more optimistic on the prospects for racial reconciliation: Fifty-seven percent of blacks expected that race relations would always be a problem, compared with 45 percent of whites.

"There's a big gulf between how blacks and whites look at the state of society today," says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup poll in Princeton, N.J. Whites are much more positive than blacks in assessing how groups are treated in society today. Sixty-three percent of whites say that they are satisfied with the ways blacks are treated, compared with 35 percent of blacks.

A key objective of the conference is to help explain the historical experiences or memories that inform such a range of views. "For me, reconciliation means illumination – to reach a state of acknowledgement. It's about understanding how we got to where we are," says William Cohen.

An example: "Why would a black preacher – or anyone else – suggest that the United States government is involved in spreading AIDS in the black community? From where does this fear emanate? Well, then you start reading about medical apartheid and the Tuskegee experiment and you say: Maybe they have a reason to be apprehensive and we didn't understand this. There's a rational basis for the accumulation of fears over the centuries."

(The Tuskegee experiment involved 400 poor black men in Macon County, Ala., who enrolled in a four-decade study by the US Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute on the effects of syphilis. The men were never told they had the disease or treated for it. President Clinton apologized on behalf of the American people in 1997.)

"We need to acknowledge it and then move forward and hopefully achieve a higher level of humanity. That's my goal," says William Cohen.

Janet Cohen, who still bears a small childhood scar from a rat bite, says that she was inspired by South Africa's model of racial reconciliation. "The blacks just wanted the whites to admit what happened: Stop being in denial that we have this problem, don't deny that you have perpetrated these horrible things against us. Admit it. Once you admit it maybe you can move on," she says. "I don't think we've always been land of the free, but we are home of the brave. I think we can face all our truth, face all of our history and be stronger for it."

Participants invited to this conference speak of the diversity of the invitees, ranging from military and business people to celebrities, activists, academics, and journalists. Few of the professional talking heads on race are included.

"A concern at such events is that we're too often – and that was the case with the Clinton race initiative – talking to the choir and not really expanding the universe of people who are aware of issues of racism in society," says Michael Wenger of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington and former deputy director of President Clinton's Initiative on Race (1997-98).

"The fact that the Cohens are putting this on is a good thing, because they can reach beyond the so-called choir. They have a reach into parts of the society that most of us who talk consistently about race don't have," he adds.

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