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A racist cartoon?

February 19, 2009 |  2:56 pm

On Wednesday, the same day that Attorney General Eric Holder asserted that "we are a nation of cowards" when it comes discussing race, The New York Post published its now-notorious chimp/stimulus cartoon. Like many editorial cartoonists, Sean Delonas lamely juxtaposed a political story (the stimulus program approved by Congress and signed by President Obama) and a non-political  sensation (the mauling of a Connecticut woman by a chimpanzee, who was later shot to death by police). The cartoon showed two police officers, one with a smoking gun, looking at a chimp lying in a pool of blood. One cop says to another: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."

The connection between the stimulus bill and the chimp attack was tenuous and tasteless, but was it racist? In my previous existence as an editorial page editor, I spiked a few cartoons because of likely offense to a segment of our readership. I'm not sure I would have killed this one, at least on those grounds. To me it was obvious that the monkey was supposed to represent the Washington establishment that produced the unwieldy legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Obama. If a weasel had been shot for attacking a woman, the cartoonist might have transformed him into a symbol of fiscal trickiness (instead of ape-like stupidity).

When I read that the cartoon was being denounced for representing Obama as a chimpanzee, my initial reaction was that the objection was preposterous. I was confirmed in that reaction when I heard that the Rev. Al Sharpton was calling for a boycott of the Post.

I raised the subject with other members of The Times editorial board and encountered a mixture of angeement and disagreement along with some insights that hadn't occurred to me. One colleague wrote: "Welcome to the brave new world . . .  Criticisms of the president are going to be interpreted as racist attacks (or, in the case of this cartoon, criticisms of policies the president backs are going to be interpreted as racist attacks, if the cartoonist is boneheaded enough to involve a monkey). I’m not sure what the solution to this is, except that critics are going to have to be more careful with their words and images. Ultimately, it may not be a bad thing, because it will lead to an ongoing dialogue about race and symbology. But it’s going to be ugly. . ."

Another colleague, an African-American, pointed me to some truly offensive images of Obama as a monkey, including an ad for a T-shirt showing Obama thinking about a banana. Her argument -- and not just hers -- was that the cartoon had to be viewed in the context of an ugly tradition of likening blacks to apes. She had a point. My problem wasn't with the idea that a cartoonist shouldn't depict the first black president as a chimpanzee -- though that fate befell George W. Bush -- but that it was a ridiculous reach to regard the chimp in the cartoon as an Obama surrogate, let alone an allusion to a racist stereotype. 

Which brings me back to Holder's speech. He's correct that lots of Americans (though not, fortunately, our editorial board) are shy about engaging in interracial discussions about racial attitudes. The hesitation obviously exists among both whites and blacks, but I'll mention an example of what Holder would call white cowardice.

Many white Americans believe that some denuciations of "racism" by figures like Al Sharpton are exaggerated and self-serving, but they won't say so. Sometimes such shyness stems from a laudable recognition that African-Americans have been subjected to so many real outrages that a false alarm here and there should be overlooked. But I fear that some of the silence reflects a belief that the sort of dialogue Holder was urging is impossible and that it's futile to try to convince African-Americans that one of their "leaders" is wrong.  That strikes me as more racist than a silly cartoon.

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