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For anyone familiar with the regular editorial content of the New York Post, the cartoon correlating the recent killing of a chimpanzee with President Barack Obama and his stimulus package is not a surprise.
Despite the paper’s assertion that the cartoon was a parody of Washington insider politics and had little to do with President Obama’s identity as an African-American, there’s simply too much historical evidence in popular culture and media that establishes that primates have long been stand-in imagery for how some whites might view African-Americans, specifically Black men. Just last year, controversy erupted over the cover of American Vogue, which featured a picture of Lebron James and supermodel Gisele Bundchen that seemed to allude to the film “King Kong”. For the New York Post to deny the legitimacy of such interpretations is at best disingenuous and at worst arrogant. In this regard, the running of the cartoon and editorial defense of it, likely says more about the integrity—or lack of—of the New York Post than anything else.
Nevertheless this cartoon highlights the regular attempt to undermine the validity Obama’s presidency within the realm of popular media and culture. The New York Post is of course owned by Rupert Murdoch’s global conglomerate News Corporation, so it is important not to see the “chimpanzee cartoon” as separate and distinct from Fox News contributor’s Juan Williams’ delusional rants about Michele Obama’s presumed black radical political views. Neither should the neo-conservative views of the Wall Street Journal, another News Corporation company, be dismissed as unrelated, despite the fact that the commentary on Fox News or the New York Post is decidedly more vulgar in its presentation. The interconnectedness of these media entities underscores how many communities must become more sophisticated in response to racist, sexist or homophobic expression in the media.
In many ways the chimpanzee cartoon becomes the first major test of how racist expression can be combated in a so-called “post-race” society. And let me be clear, the very idea of “post-race” is a misnomer, particularly when applied to the recent election of Barack Obama, who ran successfully for the presidency by being the “most perfect Negro ever.” Until the country is willing to elect a person of color or women with, say the profile and credentials of number 43 (former alcoholic, failed business person, etc.) or the debilitating physical limitations of a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I can’t buy that we live in a post-race or post-gender society, let alone in consideration of events like the New Year’s day shooting death of Oscar Grant III. That said, the reality is that a fair amount of Americans do believe that we live in a post-race society and our response to racist expression must take in account an increasingly held view that we should “get over it.” As such, I am not advocating that we shouldn’t take to the airwaves to denounce the racists depictions in the New York Post—and some of our most prominent spokesperson acted as we have come to expect them to in that regard—but that our responses should be multi-layered and nuanced. As legal scholar Derrick Bell suggest in his classic text Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1993), so-called oppressed peoples must balance obvious responses to racism with “cunning and guile.”
So while it’s important to put the editorial board at the New York Post on blast, it is also important to contact your local cable provider and threaten to cancel your subscription because you find some of the content of the News Corporation package (which includes Fox Sports Net, the FX Channel, and National Geographic) unbalanced or offensive. The same could be said for those who in the past have supported News Corporation film productions courtesy of studios like Fox Searchlight and 20th Century Fox or Fox Broadcasting’s most recognizable brand, American Idol. The point that I’m making here is that we cannot continue to rely on political responses that once served us well, but are out of sync with the world that has changed dramatically, the proof of which is that there is a actually Black male commander-in-chief, who could be compared to a chimp.
Mark Anthony Neal is professor of African-American Studies at Duke University and the author of several books, including the recent New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity.
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