The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

What Kind of Country Do We Want to Be?

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series what kind of country do we want to be?

By now, everyone’s seen it. Everyone’s heard about it. (And everyone’s blogged about it, but hey, this is the first moment I’ve had time. So here’s the one millionth blog post on the subject.) All you have to do is ask someone, “So, how about that New York Post cartoon?” You won’t have to explain any further.

The only thing more astounding than the Post running the cartoon is how may people don’t get it, and how the people at the Post apparently don’t get why it’s offensive. What else explains what has to be the most heavily qualified, bizarre hybrid of an apology and a defense that I’ve see in a while?

“Wednesday’s Page Six cartoon — caricaturing Monday’s police shooting of a chimpanzee in Connecticut — has created considerable controversy,” the paper said about the drawing, which shows two police officers standing over the body of a chimpanzee they just shot.

The drawing is a reference to the mauling of a woman by a pet chimpanzee, which was then killed by police. In the cartoon, one of the officers tells the other, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”

The Post said the cartoon was meant to mock what it called an “ineptly written” stimulus bill.

“But it has been taken as something else — as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism,” reads the statement. “This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize.”

“However, there are some in the media and in public life who have had differences with The Post in the past — and they see the incident as an opportunity for payback,” the statement says. “To them, no apology is due. Sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon — even as the opportunists seek to make it something else.”

Yeah. Right. And sometimes a cartoon is just a vicious bit of racist stereotyping, designed to appeal to the bases of the Post’s subscriber base. And here’s a thought about those folks “in the media who have had differences with The Post in the past and see the incident as a an opportunity for payback.” If people have beef with you, and you don’t what them taking shots at you, don’t paint a big black and white bulls eye on your ass. Or at least don’t complain about the sting of buckshot when they do take a legitimate shock that you all but sent them an engraved invitation to take.

The rest was classic “I’m sorry that you were offended” which isn’t the same as and doesn’t mean “I’m sorry you were offended.” (Even better is, “I’m sorry you chose to take offense.”) The latter liberates the offending party from any responsibility and puts that burden on the offended. Suddenly the offending party becomes the victim and the offended become the bullies recast as offender: Their offense is actually taking offense in the first place

It’s a surprisingly effective strategy, having the effect of undermining the confidence of the offended. Employed with enough conviction, it can lead them to wonder “Is it just me? Maybe I should be offended. Maybe I’m reading this wrong. Maybe I should ask somebody.”

Case in point. My boss and I had what I now call a “Jar Jar Binks” moment concerning the New York Post cartoon. (For those who don’t know, the appearance of Jar Jar Binks in the Episode II installment of the Star Wars saga struck a good many people — black and white — as the birth of a space-age Step ‘n’ Fetchit.) It a moment in which reasonable, sane, intelligent people who know full well what they’re seeing and what it means, still feel the need themselves “Am I seeing this right?” or just plain telling themselves, “I can’t be seeing what I think I’m seeing.”

The morning the cartoon was posted, my boss — who is also an African American male — called me into his office. “I need a reality check on something,” he said. “I need you to look at something on my screen and tell me what you think.” I came into his office, and there it was, on the monitor. I looked at it for just a few seconds and my jaw dropped.

“OK,” my boss said. “That’s what I thought. It’s not just me.”

I turned and walked away without saying anything. Nothing further needed to be said.

Later that evening, the hubby and I were discussing the issues and events of the day, as we often do after the kids have gone to bed and we have a better chance of finishing a sentence (let alone a thought).

All I managed to say get out was, “So, that New York Post cartoon…”

, before he went off.

“Oh my god! That was unbelievable. How could they not know that would be offensive? I’m not African American, and I knew as soon as I saw it.”

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You have to not have been paying attention to an awful lot not to know, to have missed the long history of Africans and African Americans being stereotyped as brutes, portrayed as more animal than human, and dehumanized by comparisons to apes, monkeys and other primates.

As human beings, we naturally evaluate everything we come in contact with. We especially try to gain insight and direction from our evaluations of other people. Stereotypes are “cognitive structures that contain the perceiver’s knowledge, beliefs, and expectations about human groups” (Peffley et al., 1997, p. 31). These cognitive constructs are often created out of a kernel of truth and then distorted beyond reality (Hoffmann, 1986). Racial stereotypes are constructed beliefs that all members of the same race share given characteristics. These attributed characteristics are usually negative (Jewell, 1993).

This paper will identify seven historical racial stereotypes of African-Americans and demonstrate that many of these distorted images still exist in society today. Additionally, strategies for intervention and the implications of this exploration into racial stereotypes will be presented.

Description of the Problem

The racial stereotypes of early American history had a significant role in shaping attitudes toward African-Americans during that time. Images of the Sambo, Jim Crow, the Savage, Mammy, Aunt Jemimah, Sapphire, and Jezebelle may not be as powerful today, yet they are still alive.

Clearly, they are. What seem like like relatively “harmless” or “meaningless” images, though, had a serious impact on the lives of the people they were supposed to portray. The black-as-primate stereotype is a not-so-distant cousin of the “black savage” or the “black brute.”

During slavery the dominant caricatures of Blacks — Mammy, Coon, Tom, and picaninny — portrayed them as childlike, ignorant, docile, groveling, and, in general, harmless. These portrayals were pragmatic and instrumental. Proponents of slavery created and promoted Black images that justified slavery and soothed White consciences. If slaves were childlike, for example, then a paternalistic institution where masters acted as quasi-parents to their slaves was humane, even morally right. More importantly, slaves were rarely depicted as brutes because that portrayal might have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

During the Radical Reconstruction period (1867-1877), many White writers argued that without slavery — which supposedly suppressed their animalistic tendencies — Blacks were reverting to criminal savagery. The belief that the newly-emancipated Blacks were a “black peril” continued into the early 1900s. Writers like the novelist Thomas Nelson Page lamented that the slavery-era “good old darkies” had been replaced by the “new issue” (Blacks born after slavery) whom he described as “lazy, thriftless, intemperate, insolent, dishonest, and without the most rudimentary elements of morality.” Page, who helped popularize the images of cheerful and devoted Mammies and Sambos in his early books, became one of the first writers to introduce a literary Black brute. In 1898 he published Red Rock, a Reconstruction novel, with the heinous figure of Moses, a loathsome and sinister Black politician. Moses tried to rape a White woman: “He gave a snarl of rage and sprang at her like a wild beast.” He was later lynched for “a terrible crime.”

The “terrible crime” most often mentioned in connection with the Black brute was rape, more specifically, the rape of a White woman. At the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the virulent, anti-Black propaganda that found its way into scientific journals, local newspapers, and best-selling novels focused on the stereotype of the Black rapist. The claim that Black brutes were, in epidemic numbers, raping White women became the public rationalization for the lynching of Blacks.

Or you’d have to just not care, something which these days is increasingly referred to as being “post-racial.” Yet that the Post would publish a cartoon like this is evidence that we’re not anywhere near post-racial. We won’t be “post-racial” once images like this “don’t matter,” or “aren’t a big deal,” or “just a joke.” Saying you’re “colorblind” doesn’t make you so, because those few words can’t divorce you or me or anyone else from the history we share or the culture we’ve been simmering in practically since conception.

We’re probably more aware of that history than we have been as a country, after an election that can only be described as historic — one in which our troubled history with race was front and center. Sometimes it was addressed with a dignity and honesty that’s rare when it comes to this subject.

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And at other times, we were reminded of the past by having an updated version of the old-but-not-past ugliness brought front and center in a way that reaffirmed the often-quoted words of southern author William Faulker, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even gone” — much as the election of Barack Obama suggested that even though the past isn’t dead and gone, we have chosen a different future.

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On the night of the election (The video is from a previous post, but updated a bit and extended with a “part two” in the next post.), I struck an impromptu conversation with one of my fellow bloggers covering the night’s events at NPR. She grabbed a video camera, and we tried to recreate the conversation, because something I said resonated with her.

It was this. I don’t know when it happened, and it’s probably impossible to tell. But at some point during the campaign, the election shifted towards being about more than just choosing a president. Maybe it was the candidacies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — made possible by the progressive movements that have worked to extend America’s promise to more Americans, often against the will of a great many of their fellow citizens. Maybe it was Obama’s speech, openly addressing the race issue that had bubbled (barely) below the surface of the campaign up to them. Maybe it was the cumulative effect of never ending wars, a collapsed economy, and rising inequality. Maybe it was the fact that where the 2006 had its “Macacca Moment,” this election had a million of them.

Whenever it happened, and whatever the catalyst was. At some point, we weren’t just choosing a president anymore. We were deciding what kind of country we want to be.

The New York Post’s cartoon, in that context, is just a reminder that we’re not there yet, not all of us want to get there, and some of us will keep pulling in the opposite direction.

Series NavigationWhat Kind of Country Do We Want to Be?

One Comment

  1. I totally get the beef with Jar Jar Binks — as soon as he walked on screen, I was COMPLETELY uncomfortable with the character! I was talking to another white friend who never got that connection.

    I also got the “Macaca” comment from Allen (good riddance).

    This particular cartoon — I didn’t get why it was supposed to be funny when it first came out — which I guess may mean that I don’t “get” what bugs you about it. I never understood what the monkey had to do with the stimulus package!

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