JOHN MCWHORTER FEBRUARY 25, 2009
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at the legs this chimp cartoon story has. But it almost makes me reconsider whether Eric Holder actually has something in this idea that We Need To Talk.
Various friends of mine are offended by the cartoon, white and black. They say that they immediately read the cartoon as referring to Obama - but none of them are Post readers, and thus like me, they encountered the cartoon as the subject of stories about the protest. They were primed, that is, to think about the Obama implication.
I must admit being totally baffled by people who tell me that they didn't understand why the subject would be a chimpanzee. It seemed clear to me that the intent of the cartoon was to ridicule the stimulus bill as jerry-rigged, i.e. as something a monkey could put together. The grand old notion of chimps at a typewriter happening upon writing Hamlet if they had a million years to whack away at the keyboard comes to mind.
But not everybody got that, and thus apparently it wasn't a very good cartoon. But worthy of street protest and calls for the Post to shut down?
It's interesting that people I talk to stress that cartoonist Sean Delonas and the Post were remiss in neglecting how the cartoon might be taken. One person I know stressed that the cartoon was "potent" - that the Post folks should have attended to the potency of the cartoon to ...
Well, to do what? Some apparently think it will put the idea in someone's head of shooting the President. But I think we can agree that the chances of this - or that the gunman would succeed -- are rather infinitesimal, like the odds that one will die driving or flying, which we ignore throughout our existences.
As always, degree is the issue. Okay, it's a tacky little cartoon. But President Obama gave a powerful address Tuesday night about weighty issues. What kind of republic are we to pretend that amidst America's real problems in February 2009, a clumsy cartoon really deserves serious engagement? A firm letter to the Post, widely aired, would have been a proportionate response.
Think about it. The NAACP has devoted its efforts to protesting the little thing, while most new AIDS cases are black women. The Post's owner Rupert Murdoch has eaten crow - while almost surely in private wondering why "the blacks" have to be so oversensitive - and now we have, well, what? The same thing we had after "macaca," Michael Richards, and Don Imus. People will always slip up, even on race.
I suppose there is some kind of logic in seeing a few protests like this each year as a kind of standing tamp on malfeasance: maybe the idea is that the out-of-proportion tone of the protests discourages racists from doing more perfidious things.
But what I find most striking about this episode is that there are people who sincerely suppose that a white cartoonist in 2009 would actually pen a cartoon deliberately depicting Barack Obama as a chimp shot dead, and that white editors would read it that way and approve of its publication. Comments on stories about this episode are littered with people tossing off the likes of "Yeah, I always knew that stuff was still out there." That is, there are people who really think we haven't come as far as we think from the days when champion boxer Jack Johnson was regularly depicted in newspaper drawings as a cartoon primate boxing realistically drawn human whites (take a look at reproductions in Geoffrey Ward's Unforgivable Blackness).
Imagine what America looks like to people of this mind, the black ones in particular. Even under a President Obama, they see whites as open to bigotry this naked. They know it's not all of them, but their everyday sense of America is the one depicted in the film Crash.
Here is where things get unquantifiable: based on my experience of America, I do not see us as that retarded in our progress. Racism happens, yes. But I cannot imagine a white cartoonist, aware of how carefully overt racism is policed in our culture, sitting down and drawing a cartoon of Obama being shot. Maybe he'd think it -- although I think probably not -- but actually submitting it for publication?
It makes me toy with the idea that a "conversation" on race might actually be useful. People who can imagine Sean Delonas, as un-P.C. as even he has sometimes been, drawing a cartoon about shooting Barack Obama have, in my opinion, an outdated and rather tragic take on what American normal is in our moment. We really have come further than this, and maybe it'd be useful for them - whites included -- to hear that from whites earnestly attesting to it.
But that's the problem: in real life, I suspect that they could not hear such a message in any truly constructive, lasting fashion. Sure, Holder's speech can be interpreted as calling on blacks as well as whites to do some work. But in reality, how many black people in these conversations, of the kind who seriously imagine someone like Delonas could casually intend something so low and ugly, would be open to being convinced by argument that racism is not as vibrant and naked today in America as they thought? How many whites offended by the cartoon could listen to Delonas attesting that he would never pen a cartoon with such savage intent, accept that he really was just drawing a chimpanzee, and absolve him of their contempt?
The conversation, to be real, would have to have ample room for denials, taken as sincere, of racist sentiment. As to psychological studies about how people are racist in very subtle ways even when they don't know it, there would have to be ample room for speculating as to when progressivism shades into utopianism.
I may lack imagination, but I just don't see it.