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What the Obama Sock Monkey Scandal Tells Us About U.S. Race Relations

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TheSockObama Co. 's recent release and revocation of their Barack Obama sock monkey is a window into contemporary American race relations. After receiving a barrage of negative emails, phone calls, and publicity claiming that the toy was racist, they canceled production, issued refunds, and offered what appeared to be a more-or-less heartfelt apology (see excerpts here ). That apology was later taken down. And this letter by co-owner Elizabeth Lawson, aggressively revoking the apology, appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune. Some highlights from their anti-apology:

We at TheSockObama Co. have some questions to pose. What's really going on in America? In the good ol' fashion spirit of entrepreneurialism; free enterprise has been censored, and TheSockObama politically plush toy has been discriminated against in the marketplace of the United States of America...

It's okay for there to be hundreds of thousands of Google sites containing references to our current president's resemblance to a chimpanzee. However, it's not okay to make that same association regarding our possible next president. Isn't this the very definition of hypocrisy?

TheSockObama is no longer scheduled to go into mass production... Have the bullies won here?

...the blogging dens of resistance quickly began their fury of emails. An electronic battery of fiery darts flowed swiftly but silently through the veins of technology. Feverish fingers frantically clicking coast to coast, crashing and burning our tragically naive - yet sparkling website. A steady stream of repetitive verbal eloquence graced our Customer service inbox with tasty tidbits like, eff-ewe and every other colorul (soc.) expletive you could possibly imagine. We thought we had heard it all. Hey thanks. This is America, right?

...With the number of Customers we've had to disappoint in our first week of business; are we saying it's okay to take something out of the marketplace that other people want to buy? Are we now censoring one another's liberty as Americans to freely purchase goods and services on our own terms? Is this the kind of America we want?

First, notice the prioritization of "free enterprise" over anti-racism. A commitment to making money at all costs, then, is more important than social justice. In fact, interfering with "entrepreneurialism," even if by objecting to racist products is, according to Lawson, downright un-American. Yet the U.S. has a rich history of protest, much of which was and is aimed at extirpating both concrete and abstract racism. Their assertion that the free market is more American than social justice is debatable.

Second, there is an appropriation of "discrimination" when they say the Obama Sock Monkey is being "discriminated against." This is absurd, of course. But it also reduces "discrimination" to individual prejudice and makes invisible the fact that the toy invokes a real institutional history of prejudice that is both lingering and ongoing. Indeed, the liking of the comparisons of Bush and a chimpanzee with their own product and the naming of objections to their toy as "hypocrisy" erase the hundreds of years, beginning with the colonial encounter, in which black people were compared to apes in order to justify their exploitation.

Third, they refer to "bullies," casting those who fight against racism as meanies. According to Lawson, their entitlement to feel picked on is justified by their naiveté. She explains that they were simply "naive," not racist or malevolent; therefore they should be forgiven (and also, mysteriously, be able to make the doll). But being naive about racism is a privilege only whites can afford. And being naïve about racism is an easy way to reproduce it, as they were poised to do with their product. They also, simultaneously, revoke the right of people to be angry about racism. In fact, they use references to the anger of those opposing their product in order to try to delegitimate them when they refer to the "dens of resistance," "fury of emails," "fiery darts," and "crashing and burning." (They even throw in a sarcastic "eloquence" jab). The assertion that it is unacceptable to get mad about racism is a way of trivializing it and rejecting the genuine concerns of people hurt by it.

Finally, they refer to "liberty." To whose liberty are they referring? Clearly they want to defend their own liberty to make whatever toy they like. But what about the liberty of people to fight against racism? Clearly this liberty didn't register on Lawson's list. Ironically, however, the shutting down of TheSockObama Co. is a beautiful example of the liberty of all Americans to engage in collective action and fight for what they believe in.