March 4, 2009 12:00

National cowards and racist humor

Last month, America’s top cop, Eric Holder angered some people when he said we are a “nation of cowards”. But taken in context, his remarks were right on target. Holder, our country’s first black attorney general, was referring to how Americans avoid talking with each other about race. And if ever there was a time for changing that dynamic, it is now. That’s because a few insensitive idiots seem to think that since we have a man of color in the White House, it’s okay to tell or distribute racial jokes.


True enough, Obama’s rise to power should help to lessen mistrust between the races and ease the tensions of intentions. But his election doesn’t give stupid or prejudiced people a license to take advantage of this golden opportunity we have to be more open with each other. To paraphrase Holder, this is a time for us to be talking about racial divides, not exacerbating them. What’s really disturbing is that racist jokes and cartoons aren’t just popping up from off-the-wall blog sites; they are also being propagated by reputable publications and elected officials.

Last month, following the killing of a domesticated chimp gone wild, the New York Post ran a political cartoon in which two policemen were depicted as having just shot an ape. Standing over the primate’s lifeless body, one cop says, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill”. The cartoon sparked outrage from people who believed the illustrated ape represented President Barack Obama, which, if true, was disturbing for two reasons.

First, it would condone shooting a president, and second, it revived not so distant memories of a time when white racists routinely referred to blacks as monkeys.

To make matters worse, the Post editor feigned his own outrage at anyone taking exception to the cartoon, which he claimed was misinterpreted. It took nearly a week before owner Rupert Murdoch issued a formal apology.

But no sooner had Murdoch tried to put one mess behind us, when the mayor of Los Alamitos, Calif. stirred up another. Mayor Dean Grose, a white man, e-mailed friends and co-workers what he thought was a funny cartoon.

The image was of the White House lawn covered with watermelons. The caption read, “No Easter egg hunt this year”. When questioned by the Associated Press, Grose said he was unaware of the racial stereotype that black people liked watermelon.

So here we are, supposedly celebrating a honeymoon with our first black president, when instead the wedding party is bombarded with racial slurs. Actually, though, the onslaught of racist cartoons began back when Obama’s presidential campaign first caught fire. In March 2008, Investors Business Daily published a cartoon of Obama palling around with a jive-talking Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Then, in April, The State newspaper of Columbia, SC ran a cartoon by Robert Ariail which depicted Obama as an Islamic suicide bomber. Ariail said he was only making fun of the senator’s verbal gaffes, in particular the one in which Obama said, “small town voters cling to their guns and religion.” The cartoon suggested that the candidate was so embarrassed by his mistakes, that he just wanted to blow himself up. And then came The New Yorker magazine’s July cover on which cartoonist Barry Blitt depicted Michelle and Barack in militant Muslim garb, giving each other a terrorist fist bump. Blitt said he was only mocking people who accused the Obamas of being secret Muslims.

No doubt, there seems to be a trend toward more blatant racist humor these days, but we shouldn’t automatically lump all perpetrators together. The New Yorker cover, for example, was a constructive slam at ill-informed white people.

But what about the Post’s attempt at political satire? Was it really intended to be racist, or was the cartoonist just insensitive? Long before Obama came onto the scene, the Post frequently used images of monkeys to depict incompetent and rude people. They once took aim at NYC cabbies by depicting a taxi driver as a chimp (FYI, most New York cabbies are not black).

So it was consistent for the Post to take aim at congressmen who passed a pork-laden stimulus package, and to assign them a simian identity for their misdeed.

Let’s be clear, though. I am in no way defending what the Post did. Even if they didn’t mean to offend anyone, they displayed extremely poor judgement.

So too, did veteran insult-hurler Don Rickles during a recent interview with Jimmy Kimmel. Mr. Warmth, known for being an equal opportunity offender, joked that President Obama was tap dancing behind the podium during a recent speech.

Rickles, who hasn’t a racist bone in his body, meant no harm. But given the controversy and tension building from the Post’s debacle, Rickles should have refrained from the minstrel show reference that night.

The fact is, sometimes, good people say things that they don’t realize may be offensive. During a “Monday Night Football” broadcast, the late great Howard Cosell became excited when a black player broke free and ran the length of the field for a touchdown.

“Look at that little monkey run”, Howard shouted. Angry viewers called in to demand that ABC fire the star. But the protests were silenced when several leading black celebrities came forward to explain that Cosell, a champion of civil rights born in Winston-Salem, used the term “little monkey” affectionately, and did so frequently when referring to his own grandchildren. The Cosell incident teaches us not to jump to conclusions, nor to assume that certain words and phrases are necessarily spoken with the intention of doing harm. On the other hand, there are times when conclusion jumping is entirely appropriate, such as when “Seinfeld”’s

Michael Richards went on a racist rant during a stage performance. Richards clearly harbored some deep-seated prejudice against African Americans, because being heckled doesn’t make someone suddenly say the N-word in anger. That’s why Richard’s delayed apologies rang hollow.

How, then, can we really know what’s in someone’s heart, or in what context they intended a certain remark or illustration? Interpretations of the spoken word may continue to present us with moral dilemmas, but when it comes to cartoons, we do have a benchmark with which to judge between satire and hate-filled images.

Just check out the website www.resist. com, for example, and browse the socalled humor of white supremacists, whose cartoons are catalogued by race, color and religion. The images are very disturbing and clearly designed to spread hatred. And then there are the animated cartoons of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, which, unlike the Klan–type funnies of resist.com, were insensitive and offensive without intending any malice toward minorities.

Nevertheless, Warner Brothers took those cartoons out of circulation in 1969, and recently blocked them from display on YouTube.

But censorship is not the answer to our problem. To the contrary, it can be detrimental to the dialogue which Attorney General Holder is advocating.

We should absolutely discourage anyone from publishing material which may be offensive, but going forward we should resist purging old cartoons from public view. Such revisionist history does a disservice to those of us who seek to understand and teach the context in which the offensive material appeared, and to assess the damage they might have done. In the meantime, we are left to walk a narrow tightrope. On the one hand we must be ever vigilant to guard against denigrating images and hate speech, while, on the other hand, we must not overreact to every satirical word or illustration that confronts us. Despite recent setbacks, we have made great progress over the years in navigating a racially charged high-wire act. We must be careful not to lose our balance and fall from the great heights we have achieved.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).


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