Sunday, February 22, 2009


My buddy Matt commented on my recent post railing away on that racist cartoon:

So, for what it's worth, I think the intent was, "hey, this bill is so lame, it's like a monkey typed it up!" And, that they were thinking of the authors being Senators and Reps, not Obama.

But, someone probably should have anticipated the other interpretation...
Matt's in good company. My favorite political cartoonist, Tom Tomorrow, who is definitely in a position to make informed speculation about the motivations and intents of other political cartoonists writes:

It was just the news story of the day, and he was doing that thing that daily editorial cartoonists do where they take the story everyone’s talking about and slap on a few labels and call it “commentary.”. . . My guess is that Delonas simply wasn’t bright enough to understand that “political metaphors involving primates” are going to be perceived differently under the first african american president.

Of course, I have to agree, this is entirely possible. The people responsible for this journalistic travesty, the cartoonist Delonas, the paper's editor-in-chief Col Allen, it's Page Six editor, which is where the cartoon ran, and the entire paper itself, may very well have completely inadvertently, utterly accidentally created the firestorm which now rages in New York and on cable news channels. Everyone in the chain of command who green-lighted the strip could have just brain farted that day, and allowed to go to press a symbolic statement easily interpreted by black and white alike as straight up racist.

No really. I'm trying not to sound sarcastic. I've read a bit over the years about how newspapers work, deadlines, fitting stories into preexisting narratives, adhering to establishment conventional wisdom so as not to offend advertisers and other powerful constituencies, and on and on. Papers make mistakes all the time, and sometimes they're so godawful you can't help but think all these journalists are stupider than shit. Journalism, as an institution, leaves much to be desired. Something as egregious as the Post's dead chimp cartoon is as likely intentional as it is unintentional, when viewed in this context.

But there are other contexts in which to view this incident.

For instance, the New York Post is a consciously conservative newspaper owned by billionaire tyrant Rupert Murdoch, who also owns FOX News: since the Nixon era, conservatives have been adept users of coded speech and symbols designed to appeal to Southern racist voters alienated by the Democrats' embrace of civil rights during the 1960s. At this point in history, the racist nudge and wink is standard fare among elite conservatives. President Reagan was an expert. When he spoke of unemployed "strapping young bucks" receiving welfare payments, it was understood among racists that he was talking about black men; when he chose Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the brutal murders of three civil rights workers years earlier, to be the place where he delivered his first speech as the Republican presidential nominee, and spoke of "states' rights," white Southern racists automatically understood whose side he was on. Theirs. But Reagan and many others have always chosen their words such that they have plausible deniability: "it's just a chimp, and a chimp was killed recently, and they passed the stimulus bill, with which we have legitimate issues; it was just a cartoon!" Nudge nudge, wink wink.

Furthermore, the New York Post, according to MSNBC's Olbermann, has a history of offending African-Americans on many more occasions than one--indeed, this racist history inspired a Public Enemy song back in 1991. And the cartoonist who drew the offending panel has been pissing off people for years. It's like a convicted arsonist insisting that the fire he set was entirely accidental: he may very well be telling the truth, but given the context, he's going to have to prove his innocence if he really wants anybody to believe him.

But wait! There's more. I came across this interesting tidbit reading a New York Times column about Attorney General Eric Holder's comment that Americans are cowards when it comes to discussing racial issues honestly:

Project Implicit, a virtual laboratory maintained by Harvard, the University of Washington and the University of Virginia, has administered hundreds of thousands of online tests designed to detect hidden racial biases. In tests taken from 2000 to 2006, they found that three-quarters of whites have an implicit pro-white/anti-black bias. (Blacks showed racial biases, too, but unlike whites, they split about evenly between pro-black and pro-white. And, blacks were the most likely of all races to exhibit no bias at all.) In addition, a 2006 study by Harvard researchers published in the journal Psychological Science used these tests to show how this implicit bias is present in white children as young as 6 years old, and how it stays constant into adulthood.

(You can take the test yourself.)

So why do so many people have this anti-black bias?

I called Brian Nosek, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Virginia and the director of Project Implicit, to find out. According to him, our brains automatically make associations based on our experiences and the information we receive, whether we consciously agree with those associations or not. He said that many egalitarian test-takers were shown to have an implicit anti-black bias, much to their chagrin. Professor Nosek took the test himself, and even he showed a pro-white/anti-black bias. Basically, our brains have a mind of their own.

This bias can seep into our everyday lives in insidious ways. For example, a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in October found that many white doctors also had an implicit pro-white/anti-black bias, while black doctors showed almost no bias for one race or the other. The paper suggested that these biases may contribute to the unequal treatment of blacks, and that doctors may not even be conscious of it.

That is, and I've been asserting the same thing here at Real Art for years now, many many white Americans harbor racist attitudes even if they don't realize it. I mean, this seems true at face value, but now there's some actual study data supporting it. In short, even if the New York Post is being completely honest about the cartoonist's intent, it is very likely that racism crept into his concept in spite of his noble intentions.

And for me, that's the bottom line. In the end, it doesn't really matter what the Post's intent was. This is a racist image. Regardless of who actually wrote out its details, the stimulus bill is popularly understood as belonging to President Obama--if it succeeds, then so does he; if it fails, then it takes him down with it. It's his bill. The offending cartoon's attribution of the bill's ownership to a chimp makes our black President out to be a monkey. Like the Southern pride advocates who insist that the Confederate battle flag doesn't really represent a defunct nation and still existing culture based on slavery and white supremacy, the Post's perhaps heartfelt denial of what's obvious to most Americans sounds, at best, horrifically naive. At worst, it sounds like a racist lie.

I guess we'll never really know for sure where these assholes are coming from. But like I said, it doesn't really matter. The cartoon is racist, whether the Post meant for it to be or not. As Matt said, "someone probably should have anticipated the other interpretation." Indeed. They were fools to run it.