Reaction to <i>NY Post</i> Cartoon Signals Americans on Alert for Signs of Racism

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The folks at the New York Post are sure making it hard to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Their apology for all the anger and resentment that flowed from Sean Delonas' recent cartooning catastrophe might be summed up this way: "Sorry if you were stupid enough to be offended. And if you were trying to make political hay of this, fuggetabout you (if you catch our drift)!"

I believe the word here is ungracious. I'll get back to why that might be important.

But was the cartoon, morphing the story of a gunned-down rogue chimpanzee with news of the just-signed federal stimulus bill, an act of racism? Racially insensitive? Racially provocative? Intentionally ambiguous?

I don't think so.

Like many people outside of New York, I learned about this first via e-mail. A friend sent a missive with the subject line, "Offensive NY Post Cartoon." These things never turn out well. When she wrote that the cartoon seemed to convert the chimp into President Barack Obama, "or Obama into him," I understood.

Bigots throughout history have used primates -- monkeys, chimps, gorillas, baboons -- to slur black and brown people around the world. The message is one of inferior intelligence and savagery. It has been used to smooth the way for lynchings, immoral laws and injustice in the justice system. Come close to comparing a black or brown person to an ape, and that is the history you join.

You need to understand all of that to understand the protests.

But here's the thing. Just because it's close to racism doesn't make it racism. And just because you didn't intend it doesn't make it OK. The Post has responsibility for understanding why the readership might come to that conclusion, but the readership has the obligation to think.

The newspaper's stance, from editor-in-chief Col Allan, is that the cartoon was "a clear parody of a current news event." It was hardly "clear," and that is the message everyone needs to hear.

A police officer in the cartoon says, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill." You might think, as I did, that he was talking about Congress. It's an odd way to make the point that ... well, whatever the point was. It's not clear.

But the cartoon refers to those who wrote the bill, and if you've paid attention, you know that the president wasn't the one with the pen.

Still, in the context of history, it's easy to wonder whether the cartoon was meant to evoke images of racist, lynch mob-rallying editorial cartoons of the past that weren't at all subtle. So you might also think -- as so many people do -- that the dead chimpanzee was supposed to be the president, which resulted in a visit to the Post from the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Because the Post has been ensnared by racial controversy before; because it has a taste for the tasteless; because it's owned by Rupert Murdoch, a man who leans heavily to the right, many people were willing to make the leap from chimp to Obama. That doesn't make it so.

The rise of the nation's first black president brings with it both the swell of pride for what has been overcome and the acute awareness of what is still with us. Like a different sort of Secret Service, many Americans will be on heightened alert for signs that racism is taking aim at this president.

If you're given to seeing racists behind every ape, you'll need to account for the hair-trigger environment we're in. You'll need to pause and ask if there's another explanation for what you think you see.

If you're in the business of communicating, like, say, a newspaper, you want to know that your ever-suspicious public is especially on edge.

That's what makes the Post's apology disturbing. It's not just that it's a sneering flip-off of its critics. Frankly, there's something wickedly refreshing about reading an apology that wasn't grinded into pablum by the lawyers. What the apology really tells me is that they'll probably be writing another one just like it.

They admitted nothing. Not even their ignorance that the cartoon, for many, stepped into the deep dog pile of historical racism. That's if you give them the benefit of the doubt and call it ignorance. I will.

But they conceded no lesson learned.

What's to apologize for? Maybe it's for not doing enough work to learn more about how bigotry bends messages. Maybe it's for not applying what they've learned well enough. Maybe they might have said, "We're sorry. Like a lot of folks, we didn't know enough about that history. We didn't think you'd see it that way. We'll learn more. We'll think more."

Instead, the Post tells its readers, hey, get over it.

I hope we do.

For those who care about what their audience thinks, though, there's more to be done. Spend some time training your staff about the imagery and language of bigotry. It's a Google search away. Set it up so that the things that do strike you as risky -- say, using a primate in a cartoon -- pass through one more layer of thought before they go out, all bullet-riddled and bloody, into the public sphere.

The new U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, recently said that we are a "nation of cowards" when it comes to talking about race relations. Experience tells me he's right. That means we're destined to more of these explosions. It means that until we start talking with courage, we'll extend the estrangement that makes some people ignorant of how others think and makes a wary public so easily leap to the conclusion that, to paraphrase the Post's apology, a cartoon isn't always just a cartoon.

To change that, the public and the press will need to set aside suspicions, denials and indignation long enough to talk. That will take some courage.

That much, at least, is clear.

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    Keith Woods

    Keith Woods is NPR’s vice president for newsroom training and diversity.

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