Planet of the Apes?
February 22, 2009
Over the last week there has been a great deal of discussion over the above editorial cartoon, which depicts two NYC policemen, having just shot a chimpanzee, concerned over who will write the next economic stymulis bill in the United States.
The cartoon, which was printed in the Tuesday February 17th edition of the New York Post (certainly not to be confused with the New York Times), apparently was commenting on two recent events: 1) the signing of the economic stymulis bill by U.S. President Barrack Obama, and 2) the shooting of an escaped chimpanzee in Connecticut.
Somewhat predictably, and I would argue likely to the joy of the New York Post, the editorial cartoon has sparked a heated debate across the U.S. and throughout the various tubes and tunnels of the interweb. Some, like Rev. Al Sharpton, argue that the comparison of President Barrack Obama to a chimpanzee is racist – pure and simple. Others argue that political satyre has a long history of crude, mean, and downright nasty depictions of various leaders – and that this comic would have been printed, in the same way, regardless of the ethnicity of the leader it referred to.
Now, despite being the token bleeding-heart-liberal here at Beats Entropy, I do not exactly side with Rev. Sharpton.
I am not sure I would argue that the comic is “racist” for a number of reasons. First, I am a geek, so I want to use my words very carefully. To say the comic is “racist” implies a particular motive – an ideological stance. Technically the statement attributes this to the inanimate cartoon (which is nothing in and of itself), but obviously this refers back to its creator: the Post’s Sean Delonas. It may be that Mr. Delonas is a racist, I have no idea. But in my opinion, one bad comic does not a racist make. More importantly, it is not the most interesting question one can ask.
What is really at stake here is why and how the comic works. Why does a comic depicting two police officers in NYC, having just shot a chimpanzee dead, and commenting on the recent stymulis package, function on any level? How is it this image even makes sense to us, much less strikes many as a clear racist depiction?
Well, there are a number of things to consider.
1) The NYPD has a rather long and sorted history with the use of deadly force on unarmed and (at least in the depiction of this chimp) relatively innocent people. There is the Sean Bell shooting incident, the Amadou Diallou incident, the Ousmane Zongo incident, or the ever lovely Abner Louima incident. This is, of course, not to suggest all NYPD officers are either racist or evil – however, it is fair to say there is a rather lengthy and troubled history of race relations with the NYPD, punctuated with some of the above momentous fuck ups/acts of depravity. That said, if anything this might be an argument against the cartoon above being explicitly racist, for was the chimpanzee supposed to be a symbolic representation of an African American on the streets of New York, he clearly would have been shot more than twice.
2) The two cops in the comic are white. This means very little by itself, but interesting to note. The NYPD is a quite racially diverse organization…
3) The history of images comparing dark skinned people to monkeys. Here is the meat of things, the image of a monkey is a loaded one. Comparative images juxtaposing or flat our representing dark skinned people as less than human ‘apes’ is part of the legacy of a long used colonial imaginary.
While most depictions as explicit as the one featured just above have found their way out of North American mainstream culuture, the legacy of such depictions continue. The point isn’t necessarily to point to every image and try to dig out the hidden racism, but rather to realize that hundreds and hundreds of years of certain images and comparisons being made have long lasting effects on culture, and its varied representations. Subliminally or explicitly, sometimes the spectres of these explicitly racist depictions make their way into our day to day lives.
Are such spectres always examples of explicit racism? I would argue no. However, it is very important to remember the history of certain images and ideas.
So, where do I stand on Sean Delonas’ editorial cartoon? I think there are three possible explanations:
1) Sean Delonas is actually a very crafty racist. He explicitly resents a black man making it to the Presidency, and figured this was a good cheap shot. He also knows full well he can plead a combination of freedom of expression and ignorance against any denouncements of his cartoon.
2) Sean Delonas is not a racist, but did wish to cause some offense (a legitimate goal of any self-respecting political cartoonist) However, he is completely ignorant of the long racist history of depicting/comparing Africans to various sub-human primates. He is additionally completely unaware of the last 50 years of history concerning race relations and the NYPD.
3) Sean Delonas is a complete moron, and had no intention of suggesting anything accept that even a monkey could write a better stymulis bill – in which case the real perpetrators are whatever sad series of educational institutions Mr. Delonas attended.
For my money, I would put reality somewhere between 2 and 3. Of course, that said, the odds of everyone involved in the decision to print the cartoon falling somewhere between 2 and 3 are pretty slim. Someone, somewhere, probably had what we could call some racist intentions. This is of course not news worthy in and of itself. Racism has a long and proud history in the United States, this is nothing new.
What should be done about it? Well, not ever buying another copy of the New York Post would probably be a solid way to express a dissatisfaction with the cartoon. In terms of stomping such images out of our creative pallette, I have no idea. The best we can hope to do is try to remind people that nearly everything, from words to images, from styles of clothing to styles of music, comes to us with a very particular, and often racialized, history. The more we remain aware of these things, the more we can try and move forward in a way that we each consider viable and ethical.