By DeWayne Wickham
Al Sharpton, not surprisingly, was the first to sound the alarm about the newest target of an old racist slur.
The Pentecostal minister and longtime civil-rights first responder was on Tom Joyner's nationally syndicated radio show shortly after the New York Post published a cartoon linking the shooting of an out-of-control chimpanzee to congressional passage of the financial stimulus bill.
The drawing shows two cops, one with a smoking gun in hand, standing over the bullet-riddle body of the dead primate.
"They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," the offending words read.
Sharpton's beef? The caption seems to connect the chimp to President Barack Obama, whose administration wrote the first version of the legislation - and pushed hard for passage of the final draft.
The Post, part of Rupert Murdoch's right-wing media empire, was just as quick to answer Sharpton's criticism.
"The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event - to wit, the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut," Post editor-in-chief Col Allan said. "It broadly mocks Washington's effort to revive the economy. Again, Al Sharpton reveals himself as nothing more than a publicity opportunist."
But Sharpton was by no means the only one outraged by Sean Delonas' cartoon. The National Association of Black Journalists, the nation's largest organization of minority journalists, also denounced it.
"How could the Post let this cartoon pass as satire?" NABJ President Barbara Ciara said. "To compare the nation's first African American commander-in-chief to a dead chimpanzee is nothing short of racist drivel."
The Post's defense is weak. It wants us to believe Obama wasn't the target of the cartoon's not-so-veiled racist jibe. It wants to be seen as unmindful of the long history of labeling blacks as some form of simian - a baboon, gorilla, ape or monkey.
It hopes we buy the argument that its crude attack was aimed broadly at official Washington - and not narrowly at the man who has the most to win or lose from passage of the stimulus bill.
Of course, it's possible Allan and his underlings missed the recent flap over the King Conga Inaugural Edition of TheSockcq Obama doll with its monkey-like features. And maybe they weren't aware of the angry responses an Albuquerque Journal cartoon produced two days after Obama was sworn in as president.
In that cartoon, the new president, with the distinct features of a primate, was shown standing atop a small hill gazing up at a mountain of "expectations" covered with ominous clouds and lightning bolts.
It's possible none of this was the action of overt racists. But it seems entirely likely they're the product of something far more insidious: a deeply embedded insensitivity to the historic use of words of images to dehumanize blacks.
Labeling blacks as monkeys or baboons is akin to calling them niggers.
Journalists - especially cartoonists - should be especially careful not to use such imagery when writing about or depicting blacks. The New York Post was not and deserves the criticism it has gotten for Delonas' cartoon.
"One cannot truly understand America without understanding the historical experience of black people in this nation," Attorney General Eric Holder said during a Black History Month speech a day after the Post cartoon was published.
Negative stereotyping of blacks has long been a way to brand them an inferior race that doesn't deserve fair or equal treatment. Consciously or not, in publishing - and then defending - Delonas' cartoon, the Post does nothing to distance itself from those who still cling to such racism.