Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Labeling blacks a monkey: A long, fatal history

By DeWayne Wickham

Phillip Atiba Goff, who probably knows more than just about anyone about the metaphorical linking of blacks to apes, was on a nonstop flight from New York to Los Angeles when he got word I was trying to reach him.

An assistant professor of psychology at UCLA, Goff has spent years probing the psyche of whites for an understanding of why so many of them tend, consciously or unconsciously, to associate blacks with apes, monkey, baboons or gorillas. Using an onboard Wi-Fi connection, Goff sent me a copy an article he co-authored on this subject two years ago, along with a cell phone number that I could reach him on when he landed.

The article should have been required reading at the New York Post before the newspaper published a half-hearted apology for a cartoon it ran that many thought depicted Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, as a monkey. The drawing, by cartoonist Sean Delonas, shows two cops, one with a smoking gun in hand, standing over the bullet-riddled body of a marauding monkey - an apparent reference to a violent chimpanzee that had been gunned down by police in Stamford, Conn., two days before.

"They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," the caption read. Obama authored the original stimulus bill. The Post said the cartoon was simply meant "to mock the ineptly written federal stimulus bill," and not suggest that the president is a monkey.

But Goff told me there's a long history of whites portraying blacks as primates - and a recent record of incidents, largely underreported, in which Obama "was portrayed as a monkey" during the presidential campaign. Such treatment of Obama doesn't surprise him. Goff's research found that when made to think about apes, many whites associated them with blacks. And such references of blacks to simians - especially in crime reporting by the media - can produce serious results, he told me.

One 20-year study of death penalty cases in Philadelphia found "the more that media coverage used ape-like metaphors to describe a murder trial, the more likely black suspects, but not white suspects, were to be put to death," Goff wrote in the article, which appeared in Miller-McCune.com, an online academic research publication.

Goff's work is not the stuff that leads to a front page newspaper article, but it should have caught the attention of anyone at the Post who was seriously interested in repairing the damage done by the cartoon. Instead, while offering a tepid apology, the paper went on the attack, blaming "some in the media and in public life who have had differences with the Post in the past" for fanning the controversy.

It's time the nation has an adult conversation about the long legacy of portraying blacks as monkeys. But as the Post's response shows, this won't be easy.

Attorney General Eric Holder was right when he said during a Justice Department Black History Month speech that "in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards." Talk of racial issues like this is too unpleasant for those who believe Obama's election has ushered in a post-racial era.

That's why Holder was widely attacked for what he said. It explains why the Post went on the attack while offering a mealy-mouthed apology. And it's why those who were offended by the cartoon will ratchet up the pressure on the Post to make an acceptable act of contrition.

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