Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An Honest Conversation on Race vs. Monkey Business

Probably the most unfortunate thing about living in the age of the 24 hour news cycle and the Internet is that it doesn't give time for reflection. Immediate reporting and equally instantaneous opinion, via blogs and online news, means that the time to process is undermined by a barrage of images and reactions.

So Attorney General Eric Holder's controversial statement on race, in which he referred to our Americans as 'a nation of cowards' when it comes to a serious discussion on the issue, was merged with the New York Post's controversial cartoon of two police officers gunning down a chimp with the words, "Next time they'll have to get someone else to write their stimulus package."

Immediate reactions to Holder's comments, 'he was right'; 'he was wrong'; 'he was right, but he had no business as Attorney General making such a statement'. Reactions to the cartoon: 'another racist shot at African-Americans, proof that bigotry is alive and well'; or, 'people are out of their mind, its obviously a shot at Congress for authoring such a lame-brained stimulus bill'; or 'another assault on free speech. People ought not be so thin skinned. The media should say whatever they want.'

Maybe time wouldn't provide anymore clarity on these positions. But, considering that, I still think we need to sort through the volatility of both incidents.

The fact is the cartoon shows that we do indeed need a serious conversation on race. Who on earth would think of running something like this and not think that some people would be offended. Or did editors at the Post think that there was such euphoria over the election of a black president that black people would forget other cartoons and hate speech that referred to them as 'monkeys'? I was watching Monday Night Football when the late sportscaster Howard Cosell, excited by watching a long touchdown run by a Washington Redskin and said, 'Look at that little monkey go!' Most of us who remember Cosell's career, knew that however controversial Cosell was he was not racist, but he offended so many sensibilities, black and white, that he ultimately was booted of MNF. That wasn't 100 years ago.

We know the genesis was the shooting of Travis the chimp, the primate in Connecticut that went berserk and was shot by policemen. But considering race relations in this country, did the Sean Delonas have no other artistic perspective to share. Did he do that just because he could? I'm reminded of my favorite line from the movie 'Jurassic Park'. Jeff Goldblum chastises Sir Richard Attenborough, for exploiting his discovery of using DNA to reproduce dinosaurs. 'You were so caught up with the idea that you could do it that you never asked yourself whether you should.'

This incredible tone deafness in this area, could be avoided if in a serious conversation on race, we began to take seriously the sensibilities of blacks, Hispanics and other minorities when it comes to pubic speech and culture. There are some things that just aren't acceptable. And some things that just aren't funny.

The New Yorker magazine cover from last year, which depicted Barack and Michelle Obama as radical terrorists, actually obscured a rather revealing and interesting article on the then Democratic nominee for president. Had we just seen too many pictures of Obama smiling or both of them with their children for the editors to use one of them on the cover. It would have been perfectly acceptable to run a thoughtful or reflective pose by the former Senator, or a picture of the couple being affectionate with one another, and the caption, 'Too Good to Be True'. But for some reason shock value was more important than reason.

There are scores of caricatures that are no longer even vaguely referenced. Irish Americans were, at one time depicted as monkeys - we no longer do that. Jews were once depicted as rats, we no longer do that. Why evoke racially offensive memories with hurtful stereotypes?Unfathomably, our search for a 'color blind' society, has devolved into a lack of respect for history that is considered cosmopolitan and sophisticated.

At the same time, Eric Holder's comments reflect another challenge. Discussions on race are difficult on both sides. And if he meant that both blacks and whites (and others), can be cowardly when it comes to race he's right. One of the worst kinds of cowardice can be to blame every social pathology in black communities on racism. Certainly, we can trace issues of concentrated poverty, poorly equipped schools with inexperienced teachers and lack of access to capital, along with crumbling economic infrastructure on a systemic, institutional racism that exacerbates their impact. But there is a greater social infrastructure that we as black people can develop that can transcend even the most overt expressions of racism.

Without all of the opportunities we now enjoy, black America produced the heroes and 'she-roes', we now celebrate. They were scientists, clergy, politicians, poets, pundits, business leaders and activists. And they emerged during the harshest days of Jim Crow, a time when the color of your skin meant that you could be murdered with impunity and your murderers would be celebrated at worst, ignored by the justice system at best. If we credit Holder's comments with having some integrity, then a brave conversation on race calls for all participants to possess something much more substantive than thick skin - it requires tough mindedness.

Actually Rod Dreher, a columnist with the Dallas Morning News, exemplifies something of the need for this, on both sides of the racial divide. In a column regarding the Post cartoon, Dreher vents about the unreasonableness of those who saw bigotry in the cartoon, which, I supposed could be said to lead to a type of reverse bigotry by the objectors. But Rod speaks as one who thinks that we should be over this type of thing and that freedom of the press, disrespectfulness and just bad taste should be without vigorous objection and, yes, sometimes overreaction. There is no such thing as an innocent discussion of race to be had - not if that discussion is to be serious.

Dreher says, "The Delonas controversy erupted on the same day U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a speech describing America as a "nation of cowards" too afraid to have "frank conversations" about race. Is he insane? When people have their jobs and even their lives threatened for crossing invisible lines of racial sensitivity, you'd be crazy to take that risk.
"If Holder really wants to show bravery, he'll stand up for Sean Delonas, instead of contenting himself to chastise his countrymen for not running marathons across minefields."

I think he forgets that the risks taken in real conversation, not mindless, tasteless, insensitivity, are not nearly as great as those taken by others, white and black, who died so we could have an honest, brave interaction with one another. It trivializes their sacrifice to suggest that they crossed their minefields in order for us to be crude, boorish or thoughtless.

Personally, I would have rather Holder spoken of how he plans to make the United States Justice Department more just for all its citizens. But given how things played out, maybe his provocation was what we all needed. A conversation on race that is not cowardly, is a conversation that is not without consequences. There are things of which we are all guilty and things for which we should all feel shame. That cartoon is one of them.

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