Dr. King Reflecting on the Journey

Dr. King Reflecting on the Journey
"Infamous, this day in Memphis, city of my demise."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Researched Response to The New York Post's Controversial Political Cartoon

New York Post Cartoon Based on Long-Held, Hidden Assumptions Historically Associating African-Americans with Apes That Still Persist As Evidenced By Cartoonist

“A woman was mauled by a chimp in Stamford, Connecticut, and a police officer shot the chimp dead. How do you use that image to comment on the controversial Stimulus Bill passed by Obama? Well, if you’re Sean Delonas of The New York Post simply caption the shooting of the chimp in this way: ‘They’ll have to find someone to write that next stimulus bill’” (huffingtonpost.com).

Some folks didn’t get it when most African-Americans reacted negatively to the nooses hung from a tree in Jenna, Louisiana. Some folks thought Don Imus’ “nappy headed ‘ho” remark was just sexist, not racist. However, many folks are taking exception to Attorney General Eric Holder saying during a recent African-American History celebration, “We are a nation of cowards” when it comes to discussing race. I’d understand the outrage had Holder said “white people are cowards” when it comes to discussing race. However, he didn’t say that. He said we are a nation of cowards. That means all of us: black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native Americans, and every other shade, color, and hue.

Believe it or not, there are many African-Americans who don’t want to discuss race either – that is until they become the victim of racism: then they become willing participants and often leaders of that discussion. I used to joke that black folks in Toledo hated Floyd Rose (a minister who lived in Toledo for several decades and was a community/social activist) right up to the moment they went to him when they got passed over for a job/promotion, housing, a business loan, or some act of institutionalized racism that infuriated them.

The reaction to Holder’s statement notwithstanding, most people – except for the ones who work at the New York Post – seem to get that the cartoon in The New York Post is racist. Obviously, since President Obama is the author of the current stimulus plan, the cartoon’s caption evokes thoughts of him. Add to that the shooting down of a primate and you might get the idea that the cartoonist seems to be indicating that the police officers have just shot a black man, specifically our newly elected President, America’ first black President in a nation with a regrettable history of Presidential assassination attempts, three of which were successful.

“At its most benign, the cartoon suggests that the stimulus bill was so bad, monkeys may as well have written it. Others believe it compares the President to a rabid chimp. Either way, the incorporation of violence and (on a darker level) race into politics is bound to be controversial. Perhaps that’s what Delonas wanted” (columnist, Sam Stein). Stein could be right given that the cartoonist, frequently accused of bigotry, was nicknamed “the Picasso of prejudice” due to his frequent attacks on gays, associating them with bestiality. However, the cartoon which does seem to be about President Obama implicitly, like those nooses in Jenna imply violence against blacks, has a much deeper significance in that discussion about race that Attorney General Holder says we – all of us – as a nation are too cowardly to address.

“The furor might have drawn little more than a public yawn and shrug except for two small points. One is the long, sordid and savage history of racist stereotyping of African-Americans. A few grotesque book titles from a century ago, such as The Negro Is a Beast; The Negro, a Menace to American Civilization; and The Clansman depicted blacks as apes, monkeys, bestial, and animal-like. The image stuck in books, magazines, journals, and deeply colored the thinking of many Americans of that day” (Earl Ofari Hutchison, “Mr. Murdock is Obama Really a Chimp?” Friendly Five, the Dailly News Opinion Blog, 2/18/09). While the excerpt does not state Hutchison’s second point, I imagine it is given that U.S. Presidents have been previously assassinated, the cartoon’s could provoke an attempt on our current President’s life.

Regardless of what the second point may be, as stated by Hutchison, there is a historical precedence that accounts for the virulent reaction among most African-Americans to Delonas political cartoon that dates back to the earliest contacts Europeans had with Africans. “The representation of blacks as apes has been on the cultural conscience of westerners since shortly after the first contact of Europeans with West Africa. ‘Early European maritime writings described primitive people who seemed more closely related to apes than white explorers’” (ScienceDave, “Discrimination Against Blacks Linked to Dehumanization,” NowPublic, 2/11/08).

Unfortunately, history that is not examined and discussed, often repeats itself as demonstrated by ScienceDave’s article focusing on the findings of six studies published by Stanford, Penn State, and UC Berkeley psychologists. “Their work aimed to answer, ‘Is it possible to hold an implicit association between apes and blacks if one is unaware that such an association ever existed?’ In other words, do people inherently associate ‘apes’ with black people, even if they have had no experience with any such association” (ScienceDave). Why are blacks still being associated with apes in the 21st century?

Another article about the studies written by Tom Jacobs (2008) offers a possible answer. “In a widely heralded speech, presidential candidate Barack Obama asked Americans to begin a more honest discussion about race, anger, and prejudice. Such a conversation is unlikely to get far, however, if someone’s not even aware of their bigoted assumptions. And a just-published series of six studies suggests one racial stereotype – that blacks are somehow apelike – is lodged in the minds of white Americans, just below the level of consciousness” (Jacobs, “Studies Expose ‘Apelike” Stereotype Among Whites,” Miller-McCune, 3/21/08). Are blacks still being associated with apes in 2009, because of deeply rooted, assumptions that prevent “honest discussion about race, anger, and prejudice”?

The studies in question used white university students as subjects and three test groups who were shown a black person’s face, a white face, or no face followed by degraded images of animal faces that gradually became clear. “Interestingly, it took the test subjects fewer frames to recognize the ape after being primed with a black face than no face and more frames when primed with a white face than the control” (ScienceDave). Also, given the word “ape” as a prime, subjects who simultaneously watched videos of police beatings of blacks were more like to claim the beating was justified for blacks than whites.

Publication of the findings of the study concluded that “‘Despite widespread opposition to racism, bias remains with us,’ Eberhardt [an author on the study] said. ‘African-Americans are still dehumanized; we’re still associated with apes in this country. That association can lead people to endorse the beating of black suspects by police officers, and I think it has lots of other consequences that we have yet to uncover’” (ScienceDave).

Historically, these associations have been considered reasonable and scientifically justified. “In the influential and now infamous 1854 book Types of Mankind, Josiah C. Nott and George Robins Gliddon rank Negroes between Greeks and chimpanzees on the evolutionary ladder. ‘I don’t think it’s intentional, but when people learn about human evolution, they walk away with a notion that people of African descent are closer to apes than people of European descent,’ Eberhardt told the Stanford University press office. ‘When people think of a civilized person, a white man comes to mind’” (Jacob).

The persistence of these associations and their historical origins that seem to explain in some fashion the results of the studies is also stated by lead author Phillip Atiba Goff. “‘The notion of blacks as apelike began with the first European contact with Africans,’ Goff said. ‘There were illustrations of apes descending from the trees having intercourse with African females. It was perhaps the most popular pictorial representation of people of African descent in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries’” (Jacobs). An image from Jan Nederveen Pieterse’s book White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Popular Western Culture published in Amsterdam in 1990, shows a graphic representation of prevailing stereotypes in the 17th, 18th, and 19th century. Slaveholders promoted the notion that female slaves from Africa were sexually insatiable, stating as fact that these women engaged in sexual intercourse with apes.

Pieterse exposes the intent behind these images. “White on Black is a compelling visual history of the development of European and American stereotypes of black people over the last two hundred years. Its purpose is to show the pervasiveness of prejudice against blacks throughout the western world as expressed in stock-in-trade racist imagery and caricature. Reproducing a wide range of illustrations—from engravings and lithographs to advertisements, candy wrappings, biscuit tins, dolls, posters, and comic strips the book challenges the hidden assumptions of even those who view themselves as unprejudiced….Looking at conventional portrayals of blacks in the nursery, in sexual arenas, and in commerce and advertising, Pieterse analyzes the conceptual roots of the stereotypes about them. The images that he presents have a direct and dramatic impact, and they raise questions about the expression of power within popular culture and the force of caricature, humor, and parody as instruments of oppression” (Yale University Press, 2008).

The question remains, “how is this being transmitted from generation to generation? ‘It’s a fascinating question,’ Goff said. ‘If you look at depictions of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Barack Obama in editorial cartoons, they are frequently simian-looking representations’” (Jacobs). T-shirts with a monkey labeled “Obama in ‘08” were sold in Arkansas, during the election which, along with a sock puppet monkey dressed in a suit and wearing an Obama campaign button, created quite a bit of controversy. The folks who made the puppet were shocked at the negative response, but were quick to apologize and attempt to explain themselves.

“We at TheSockObama Co. are saddened that some individuals have chosen to misinterpret our plush toy. It is not, nor has it ever been our objective to hurt, dismay or anger anyone. We guess there is an element of naviete on our part, in that we don't think in terms of myths, fables, fairy tales and folklore. We simply made a casual and affectionate observation one night, and a charming association between a candidate and a toy we had when we were little” (“Creators of TheSockObama™: Of Course We Aren't Racist!” posted by Jeff Fecke on Shakesville Blog, 6/13/08).

Some people still don’t get it. Obviously, the folks at TheSockObama Co. didn’t bother to do any historical research or they would have run across books like Types of Mankind and White on Black or some of the caricatures of blacks that were popular a less than a century ago and that can still be seen in Asia and Latin America, as well in some places in Europe. (This writer was dismayed to see such a stuffed toy in a window display in Europe’s then largest shopping mall in Paris, France, in 1990).

I think these images and the underlying beliefs they represent persist because Attorney General Holder is right: we are cowards when it comes to discussions about race because those who hold these beliefs (including some blacks who look down on other blacks – the uneducated and/or poor – believing they are superior to those they consider lower classed) don’t want to admit to those outside their circle that they have them and those about whom these beliefs are held often don’t want to be confronted with such assumptions.

If we were to have that discussion about this issue which has had such a significant role in the history of our country out in the open, bringing out all of the ugliness and stupidity that surrounds race on all sides, everyone would know that things like nooses being hung from trees and African-Americans being depicted as monkeys, chimpanzees, or apes are offensive, traumatic, and unacceptable; and they’d also know why.

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