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Black and White and Misread All Over

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Black and White and Misread All Over

Despite what Slant’s own Oscar prognosticators have told you, the profoundly relevant The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306, a recounting of the final hours of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, seems—at least on the surface—like a no-brainer to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. In the film, titular witness Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles ardently tells a group of churchgoers that even though the dreamer was killed, the dream continues to live on. That dream coursed through the veins of every voter who pulled a lever or pressed a button for Barack Obama last November. Many heralded the impact his election might have on race relations in this country, while others cynically dismissed all the talk about a post-racial age of hope and change.

Comedians, meanwhile, lamented the replacement of one of the easiest targets in modern history with a man of considerable intelligence, exceptional oratory skills, and, perhaps trickiest of all, a mixed-race background. For eight years George W. Bush was likened to a chimp—the implication being, of course, that he’s stupid. (It’s the type of lampoon, by the way, that insults the intelligence of our fellow primates while trivializing just how dangerous a “stupid” man like Bush can be.) It’s another thing altogether, however, to liken a black man to a chimp, as many believe New York Post satirist Sean Delonas did when he published a cartoon on Wednesday of two police officers shooting a chimpanzee—evoking the killing of a former actor-chimp in Connecticut earlier in the week—accompanied by the caption, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”

While it was clear to me that Delonas was likening the Democratic majority in Congress to a bunch of chimps, the marriage of the image of a dead chimpanzee to a bill Obama has so fervently championed is, to quote Al Sharpton, troubling. That the ’toon has caused a controversy isn’t surprising or unwarranted, but that it’s been hastily labeled “racist,” completely ignoring the possibility that it might not be, is just as troubling. Such knee-jerk accusations prevent real discourse about the issue and perpetuate the general fear articulated by Attorney General Eric Holder, who, in an unrelated speech to the Justice Department that same day, called the U.S. “a nation of cowards” when it comes to talking about race: “Certain subjects are off-limits and [to] explore them risks, at best, embarrassment and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character.”

Delonas has a well-deserved reputation for being a homophobe and a chauvinist (most recently, he perpetuated the sexist myth of the ideal female figure with a grotesque portrayal of newly curvaceous Jessica Simpson), but in this case it seems like his vitriol had more to do with partisan politics than race or sex. Republicans have wasted no time launching attacks against the new administration, but if there’s one thing they hate more than Obama, it’s the Democrats in Congress. Presidents do not write bills, legislators do, and if the cartoon is indeed racist, then it’s also fundamentally inaccurate. In an “apology” posted on its website last night, the Post concurs: “Wednesday’s Page Six cartoon…was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill. Period. But it has been taken as something else—as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism. This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize.”

The statement is not so much an apology as it is an admission that the paper should have known better than to print the cartoon in the first place—not because it was racist, but because, given that we have a black president, it could have been interpreted as such. (Echoes of last year’s New Yorker cover, in which Obama and his wife were depicted as Islamic fundamentalists, and an Annie Leibowitz-snapped Vogue photograph that portrayed LeBron James as an angry ape and Gisele Bündchen as a lady liberty in distress—both images with poorly executed messages.) The fact that Delonas’s chimp cartoon was published points to the continued, though not surprising, lack of judgment on the part of the Post’s Editor-in-Chief Col Allan, who allegedly hasn’t seen eye-to-eye in recent months with publisher and newly converted Obama fan Rupert Murdoch. Some things, it seems, aren’t plainly black and white.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.