The worst thing about the CEO of the Tennessee Hospitality Association Walt Baker's silly, sick, demeaning depiction of First Lady Michelle Obama as a chimp ironically is not the depiction. It's Baker's clueless defense. The instant the storm broke, Nashville's mayor and the state's GOP leaders denounced him, and the contract for his marketing firm, Mercatus Communications, to help promote the city's new convention center was summarily yanked. In response, Baker predictably wailed that he's not a bigot or racially insensitive, and that the cartoon was nothing but political humor.
He fervently believes that. He just as fervently believes that lampooning Michelle Obama and President Obama as a monkey, ape, or gorilla is just fun and games. He and the pack of race baiting websites, chat rooms, and of late, college frat parties, and student websites that ridicule the Obamas (and African-Americans) in assorted offbeat, crude, vile cartoons and always with the vile depiction as monkeys or apes is by now standard fare. It's no accident that it is.
The long, sordid and savage history of racist stereotyping of African-Americans has been the stock in trade of race baiting and racial ridicule for more than century. A few grotesque book titles from a century ago, such as The Negro a Beast, The Negro, a Menace to American Civilization, and The Clansman depicted blacks as apes, monkeys, bestial, and animal like. The image stuck in books, magazines, journals, and deeply colored the thinking of many Americans of that day...that day?
In the movie version of Rudyard Kipling children's classic, The Jungle Book, the Disney Studios in 1967 graduated from the other standard animal depiction of African-Americans as black crows to depicting African-Americans as the monkey like jive, gibberish blathering King Louie. The film was remade in 1994.
Fifteen years later, New York Post Cartoonist Sean Delonas ignited a firestorm with his casual depiction of President Obama as a monkey. He did it precisely because that image didn't die a century, half century, a decade, or even a year ago. In 2007 Penn State researchers conducted six separate studies and found that many Americans still link blacks with apes and monkeys. Many of them were young and had absolutely no knowledge of the vicious stereotyping of blacks of years past. Their findings with the provocative title "Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization and Contemporary Consequences," in the February 2008 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was published by the American Psychological Association.
The overwhelming majority of the participants in the studies bristled at the faintest hint that they had any racial bias. But the animal savagery image and blacks was very much on their minds. The researchers found that participants -- and that included even those with no stated prejudices or knowledge of the historical images -- were quicker to associate blacks with apes than they were to associate whites with apes.
This was not simply a dry academic exercise. The animal association and blacks has had devastating real life consequences. In hundreds of news stories from 1979 to 1999 the Philadelphia Inquirer was much more likely to describe African Americans than Whites convicted of capital crimes with ape-relevant language, such as "barbaric," "beast," "brute," "savage" and "wild." And jurors in criminal cases were far more likely to judge blacks more harshly than whites, and regard them and their crimes as savage, bestial, and heinous, and slap them with tougher sentences than whites.
First Lady Michelle Obama is a woman, a black woman, and a soft target for the frustrations and even scorn of the Obama loathers. During the campaign Obama opponents eagerly latched onto out-of-context statement she made at a campaign rally in which she allegedly questioned her faith in America, and made a supposedly less than reverential reference to the flag. They brutally tarred her as a closet anti-American, race-obsessed, black radical. That made her an instant campaign liability. For weeks she virtually disappeared from the campaign trail.
She has played a relatively low key role in the White House, and has succeeded in pretty much staying out of harm's way from the hits of hubby Obama's avowed enemies. That is all except when it comes to the image assault from the eternal animal mockery of blacks, an image that Baker and legions of other see nothing wrong with. It's an image that the First Lady and the President haven't seen the last of it. It's just too juicy, vile and hurtful to die. It's been that way for a century.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His nationally heard talk show is on KTYM-AM 1460 AM Los Angeles Friday 9:30 AM and KPFK Pacifica Radio 90.7 Los Angeles Saturday Noon PST.
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