Monkey Business

The controversial cartoon from the Feb. 18 edition of the New York Post depicts police officers killing a chimp who, apparently, was responsible for the federal stimulus bill. See the full cartoon here.

What?! Really… the editors of the New York Post thought this would work?

As most of my friends and regular readers know, I have reasonably thick skin. When the controversial, satirical New Yorker cover was released last summer that depicted the Obamas in the ridiculous distortions that have dogged them throughout the campaign, I defended it. Recognizing that the cover was not really about the Obamas, I warned against those who would seek to make the Obamas untouchable. A democracy like ours would not abide this. I asserted moreover that as the historically underrepresented find broader audiences in the public square, we too have to be open to respectful forms of critique.

But the New York Post‘s shot monkey cartoon is so beyond the pale it strains credulity. Okay, there may have been an actual monkey recently shot to which the cartoon is alluding (by the way, how is that funny?). But, come on!

Did no one involved in the publication of this cartoon grow up in America? Is each of them completely ignorant of the history of shameful and grotesque misrepresentation of people of color–particularly black men–in the United States? Furthermore, do none of them live in New York? Are they totally oblivious to the long history of the often unprovoked shootings of blacks by N.Y. police officers? In light of these gargantuan contextual realities, how could this cartoon ever be deemed appropriate?

As much as I have championed the abandonment of racial reasoning, “post-racial” does not mean over and done with race. Our history is inextricably steeped in race, and if we are to avoid repeating the same mistakes, we must remain vigilantly aware of how race and racism work and unequivocally opposed to even the slightest indignities. One could bring hardened soldiers to tears with the walk through history my students just experienced at the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore. It’s an often ignored history of blacks being treated as sub-human, having their personages desecrated for the fear and amusement of others.

Baratunde Thurston, comedian and guest on MSNBC’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue last night, brought to light a recent psychology study by a UCLA professor that suggests “the image of black people being equated with apes makes people more tolerant of abuse.” We will not abide this.

The New York Post defends the cartoon as “a clear parody.” Where were the contextual clues? The only possibly less offensive interpretation would be that the monkey is somehow an abstraction symbolic of both houses of Congress as a whole. But that idea only occurs third or fourth. Perhaps this is because, last time I checked, Congress is made up of more than 500 highly regarded elected officials (not primates). Not to be overlooked, the preceding page of the paper, from what I understand, features a generous spread and write-up about President Obama signing the stimulus bill into law!

On some level I knew it was only a matter of time. The question now is: What will we do Hopefully, the New York Post’s circulation will dwindle to none. Hopefully, we will cultivate in ourselves and our children a cross-cultural sensitivity that we haven’t had before now. But there is another thing I would like to propose.

I am convinced that the task of editing (and similar gatekeeping responsibilities) in the brave new world of more democratic access must be as interpretive as it was heretofore pragmatic. Gatekeepers must now also be anthropologists, increasingly immersed in the imaginative space (culture) of new democratic participants, enough to translate thought and anticipate impact as well as they proof content. It may seem like a bit much, but it is the only way I can see to avoid such thoughtlessness in the future.

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