Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Racism Considered

Today, Rupert Murdoch, owner of The New York Post, issued a strong apology for the now-infamous chimp cartoon published in the paper last week, the one showing a cop shooting a large monkey while saying to his co-worker, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” This was, understandably, regarded by many readers and leaders as a racist insult to President Obama, because black Americans have long been victimized by ugly, mean-spirited, downright racist comparisons to primates.

I agree that this cartoon is ugly and mean-spirited, and since The Post is New York’s right-wing newspaper of record, I’m more than willing to believe that this insult to the President and his economic recovery plan may have had deliberate racist intent. But I have a problem with the outcry this cartoon has created, because (1) it’s a political cartoon and political cartoons, currently and historically, are frequently ugly and mean-spirited; (2) the image was a direct reference to the actual recent police shooting of a 200 lb. “pet” chimp who brutally mauled a friend of its owner; and (3) political cartoons, ugly or not, are part of American free speech, which is why so many Americans were appalled when Islamic extremists in Denmark (and around the world) wanted to kill a cartoonist whom they felt had drawn sacrilegious images of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005. And of course, this current incident brings to mind the now-also-infamous New Yorker cartoon/cover last July that portrayed the Obamas as Islamic extremists. (Try to keep up.)

My father, who was born on the West Indian island of St. Vincent, had a lifelong pet peeve about news images of Africans and West Indians that routinely included pictures of barefoot black women carrying large baskets on their heads, “like there’s no other picture that describes black people except those women with the goddamn baskets on their heads!” He also had no affection for movies from the 30s and 40s, because they either excluded blacks entirely or portrayed them as stupid, frightened, eye-rolling, foot-shuffling servants or other insignificant characters. And of course, he was right; negative/stereotypical/racist images have been used to define blacks in the eyes of whites (and often themselves) since the first slave ship arrived at our shores.

Indeed, from the moment humans began drawing on the walls of their caves, images have been powerful communicators of ideas, feelings, culture and history. Physiologically, humans “think” in images, not words, which is increasingly true in our high-tech, image-driven, a-literate present day. So there’s no denying the impact and importance of images.

Yet it seems to me that we’re trying to deny the still-entrenched existence of racism; like it’s a surprise whenever it surfaces now. The term “post-racial America” that many people have become so fond of is both meaningless and grammatically incorrect: there are now, have always been, and always will be, a variety of races in America. By no means are we living in post-racist America just because we put an African American in the White House. On the contrary, Obama’s Presidency will open cans of racist worms on many fronts over the coming years, as well it should. We as a nation need to recognize, confront and overcome our racism – past, present and future.

President Obama has frequently said we must learn to disagree without being disagreeable. I think it can also be said that we must learn to recognize our prejudices without going ballistic; when we’re being hateful and ignorant, we should explain, to ourselves and one another, how and why this is so, and use communication and reasonable protest to make the case, rather than call for a buffet of heads on platters. Spike Lee, who helped lead one of the protests against the chimp cartoon, said (referring to what he believed to be a sore lack of racial diversity in the editorial enclaves of The Post), “I don’t think anyone in that room realized what they were doing.” Correct! Ironically, they thought they could call the President a stupid ape without meaning anything except that they disapproved of his [undeniably flawed] stimulus package. If we were truly living in a “post-racial” America, they could. However, we’re not, we’re living in a still-racist America, so they should have known better. But should we respond to their lack of sensitivity and common sense like the protestors in Denmark?

This incident has brought two things to mind. The first is George C. Wolfe’s brilliant comic satire on racism in his award-winning play from the 1980s, The Colored Museum. It caused much controversy and incurred considerable criticism at the time, even though it was written by a black man about the plight of black culture in mainstream America. The play is now a frequent part of college theater repertoire and continues to raise eyebrows, and still for the wrong reasons. As any oppressed people can tell you, survival would be impossible without a sense of humor (as well as a sense of perspective). The second thing that came to mind was Benjamin Franklin’s sage observation that “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” I contend that those who would sacrifice free speech in the name of political correctness will come to rue the loss of the former and the dominance of the latter.

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