apparently this isn’t racist

So says the NY Post, that had this cartoon on page 6. Post Editor-in-Chief Col Allan said: “The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington’s efforts to revive the economy.” I have a hard time believing that this isn’t a reference to Obama (author of the plan). And the idea that one would compare him to a violent chimpanzee and have police officers shoot him, well, it is deeply racist to my eye.

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137 thoughts on “apparently this isn’t racist”

  1. A point well taken. But the symbollic context matters. After centuries of comparing Blacks to Apes/Chimps in order to present them as less than human, it takes on a completely different implication. It’s quite different to suggest that one dude is like a chimp than to mobilize imagery that all black people are.

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  2. I didn’t even see this until you mentioned it, and usually racial connotations are painfully obvious to me. I would suggest there’s a bit of confirmation bias going on here.

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  3. Racism was the first thing on my mind when I saw it, of course I also have a research interest in race and racism so you might argue confirmation bias for me as well – though I would disagree.

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  4. I think Jessie over at RR nails the key shocker–the moral encouragement for assassination, and the link to support for gunning down people of color in the street. But, you know, animation is common for normal political discourse. And, W does look like a chimp. Obama looks more like that giraffe in Madagascar.

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  5. When an old friend of mine went crazy, one of the things she decided is that there were cameras in the toilet monitoring her poopage, that everyone in the world was watching and commenting on this, and that anything circular was an intentionally offensive representation of her anus. I think we can agree that this was a paranoid monosemia dependent on radical decontextualization. But sometimes circles do symbolize anuses, just like sometimes cigars symbolize penises and sometimes triangles symbolize homosexuality. I’m thinking of Teletubbies here, always a pleasure.

    In order to pass the sniff test, decoding has to minimally consider plausible alternatives. My old pal’s problem was that she had zeroed in on one and only one possible meaning of circles and lost track of the others. So John is correct here that “This cartoon is a clear parody of two unrelated things, which we tie together…” with a subtext to produce a humorous effect. But to say that the subtext is racial is premature until we’ve considered alternatives; and empirically incorrect, in the case of at least two readers above.

    I think the cartoon is plenty funny just on the reading that the stimulus bill is so awful it must have been written by a chimp, so we don’t _need_ racism to explain it. We could recontextualize chimps writing things with the old joke about a million chimps with typewriters eventually producing Shakespeare. The dead chimp is contingently available in current events, so reading assassination into it is generically plausible, but optional and contextually foreclosed. Yada, yada.

    Ultimately, what I think is that if you have to find your pop culture exemplars of racism in optional readings of heavily coded ephemera, we’re doing pretty freaking well overall with the whole racism thing. And I say that as a Gramsci scholar, so I knows me some hegemony annat.

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  6. @ Carl – I agree that this cartoon can be interpreted without racism. We could say that the stimulus bill is so bad a monkey could have written it. We know that in reality Obama himself did not sit down and pen the bill word for word- countless others were involved. Still, the stimulus bill is repeatedly referred to as “Obama’s” stimulus bill in the media making it easy for people to immediately interpret the monkey as being Obama, not a nameless group of Washington suits. Add to that the history of using chimps etc to dehumanize blacks in America and it is easy to see how this is interpreted by a great many people.

    Do we need racism to explain this cartoon? No. It can be explained as a colossal error in judgment, but another explanation does not negate the racial interpretation just as a racial interpretation does not negate the “so bad a monkey did it interpretation,” They can exist at the same time and be equally valid.

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  7. Allow me to become immensely less popular.

    I think it’s absurd to argue that if we can construct alternate explanations of racist imagery then they’re not really racist (or that racist). Imagine:

    “Yes, yes, I may have compared Jews to rats. But Jews, after all, are very likely to live in NYC, where there are lots of rats. It was a commentary on city life and religion, not a mobilization of imagery that dehumanizes Jews. So it’s not offensive.”

    Or,

    “Yes, yes, I compared the author of the stimulus plan, a Black man, to a chimp. But there was once this joke about Shakespeare and chimps, and another president was once compared to a chimp. So it’s not a mobilization of racist dehumanization. It’s just a funny commentary.”

    To say nothing of the fact that what unites the two commentaries (the monkey in CT and the stimulus package) IS race. Cops shoot a monkey. They also shoot Black men (police violence against Blacks is an enormously charged cultural process). A Black man authors the stimulus. Race is what ties the fabric of the joke together. To ignore it seems, well, willful.

    I think it’s equally absurd to argue that because two people don’t see something, empirically it’s not true. Let me sound like Carl’s crazy friend, just because people don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there. Indeed, we have a word for that in race scholarship. It’s called white privilege.

    I’ll stop throwing bombs now.

    For those of you in NYC, black community groups have organized a protest outside the NY Post offices. It’s today (Thursday) at noon. 1211 6th Ave between 47th and 48th Sts.

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  8. Allow me to remain exactly as unpopular as I already am.

    “I think it’s absurd to argue that if we can construct alternate explanations of racist imagery then they’re not really racist (or that racist).” And I think it’s absurd to construct hypotheses with the conclusion already embedded in them. But that’s how confirmation bias works.

    Every chain of associations reaches a conclusion. Give me a moment and I can get from Princess Margaret to banana. And then from banana to fruit salad, and from there to homophobia. This is one of those tricks our brains are very good at playing, but it’s not good semiotic analysis – yet.

    Under deadline what editorial cartoonists do is take one from column A and one from column B and throw ’em together to see if they spark a chuckle. It’s quite possible this one’s chuckle came from a racial subtext, but again as prior readers have shown that subtext is empirically optional to interpreting and appreciating the cartoon and therefore cannot dispositively be read back into its intent without a whole lot more context to work with. This being the case, the offense is not definitively that the cartoon IS racist, but that it might foreseeably be interpreted that way by ‘motivated’ readers, causing them distress.

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  9. There’s little doubt in my mind that the editors knew what they were doing. How can anyone honestly believe that it never occurred to anyone in the entire staff to interpret the cartoon along racial lines? I think that’s a case of wishful thinking.

    I think the accurate version of the story is that they were very aware that the cartoon carried two possible meanings and decided to run the cartoon because they could defend themselves by clinging to the less controversial of the two meanings. They’re in the business of selling papers and any news is good news, right?

    As such, I think people have every right to express their moral indignation.

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  10. @12: I gather, then, that racism is something that happens in the heads of overly sensitive people.

    If only these damn oppressed people would stop thinking about racism things would be better!

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  11. So, the association of Black Journalists also used the hypothetical example of a cartoon involving someone who was Jewish and a rat. This is one of those cultural illiteracy moments when I have to confess that if there is some long bad historical invocation of rats for Jews similar to monkeys/apes/chimps for Blacks, I was not aware of it.

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  12. The Nazis commonly used imagery of mice and rats, as well as insects, to portray Jews—as well as words like “Ungeziefer” (vermin.) The practice was so common that Art Spiegelman adopted it for Maus, the biographical series depicting his parents’ Holocaust experiences. Spiegelman drew his father, mother and himself as mice throughout the book for precisely that reason.

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  13. Jews and rats go back to the Black Death. But it’s a troubled analogy. If you compare Jews to rats, you’ve compared Jews to rats. It may be that both types of critter share some admirable qualities by some critteria, but still it doesn’t take a doctorate to smell a rat according to rodents’ primary connotation.

    In contrast, the cartoon makes no explicit comparison. And “Black” is not chimps’ primary connotation for lotsa folks, nor is “Obama” Black’s primary connotation. In each case those connotations do exist, but the point is that in order to get from dead monkey to dead presidents you need at least two mediations, failure of either of which breaks the interpretation, whereas the insult with Jews and rats is immediate.

    Given that those connotations exist, it is reasonable for people familiar with them to interpret the cartoon as possibly racist. Of course it is! But it is not reasonable to interpret the cartoon as certainly racist, if by that we mean the intent or disposition of its creator. We don’t know that and can’t from decontextualized content, unless you’re prepared to argue that every time a monkey appears so does a Black man. So given familiar connotations in particular discourse communities that monkey=Black and Black=Obama, the most we can say with certainty is that the cartoon is clueless and insensitive.

    How to handle that fact depends on how we want to balance the value of a diverse public sphere containing Teletubbies, South Park, Richard Prior, and cartoons of the Prophet with the value of offendable groups’ public autonomy.

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  14. “But it is not reasonable to interpret the cartoon as certainly racist, if by that we mean the intent or disposition of its creator.”

    This is an interesting statement. For you (carl) racism must be based in intent. For many however, this is not true (myself included). I do not believe that for something to be racist it must be intentional. The reason that it does not need to be intentional is because the result is the same regardless of intent (see Thomas Theorem).

    I think this is why so many white people believe that racism is no longer a ‘big deal.’ Out right, in-your-face acts of racial discrimination and hatred are far less common today than in the days of Jim Crow – this is true. The new color-blind attitude is that If it’s not burning a cross on someone’s lawn, if it’s not saying “I’m discriminating against you because you’re black and I don’t like black people” – well then we can’t say for sure it’s racism. This view minimizes – or dare I say ignores – the “small” but constant struggles many non-whites face ever day.

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  15. On “intent.” Little separates willful negligence from intent, and willful negligence is the best you can grant them. Even supposing that the racial implications never crossed the cartoonists mind, even in todays budget-cut news business, that cartoon is vetted by multiple people whose *job* is to ask questions like “is this cartoon merely provocative, or might it offend even reasonable people?” Does anyone really believe that those people are so incompetent that the interpretation of this cartoon as racist — which is obviously a very common interpretation — never occurred to them? This is a business that lives or dies on its ability to understand how what it publishes will be understood. Who cares if the person drawing the cartoon had hate in his soul. It is just implausible that the people publishing it didn’t know how it would be received. And once you know that, you have intent.

    I mean, if you want pseudo-legalistic argument. I’d really prefer just to call it an obviously racist cartoon hiding behind a paper-thin rationale so they can posit themselves as victims of fearsome aggressively sensitive followers of sharpton.

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  16. Alotta, again I agree with you. This is why I said “intent or disposition.” Disposition is a term Bourdieu and other sociologists use to get at the habits picked up through a lifetime of immersion in structured relations with others. It’s a way to talk about unintentional intentions, or structured agency: we are ‘disposed’ to think and act in certain ways by our whole interactive history.

    So I get it that some people are disposed to racism even when they’re not consciously, intentionally racist, and can do great harm. I also get it that some people are disposed to default to racism as their account of anything that happens to fit their interpretive templates. I don’t think I can convince anyone with deep dispositions that they have them, let alone that they should change them. One just hopes that there are certain conversations where these understandings are shared.

    If you can’t say for sure something is racism, you can’t. This is not minimizing things we can say for sure are racism, and it’s not denying that this or that instance *may* be racism, and it’s certainly not saying that racism is all gone now, byebye.

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  17. jbwb, most white people I know have absolutely no idea that black people associate monkeys with racism. None. I myself did not know this until I was in my 30s and had been studying race and identity in global perspective for some years.

    What is obvious to one discourse community is not to another. Do you know that in Maine it’s an insult to call someone French? Why not?

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  18. I’m with Alotta. As I’ve been reading these comments, I’ve realized that sometime over the last few years I’ve stopped talking about “racist” or “sexist” actions/actors and started talking about actions/actors that are “problematic” with respect to race or gender.
    Actually this is NOT a euphemism (and I wouldn’t want the force of the word “racist” to disappear). If we agree that ALL of our lives are fundamentally structured by race and gender, it doesn’t really make sense to ask whether, say, a cartoon is racist. It makes sense to ask whether it’s contributing to the problem of racial inequality or contributing to its solution.

    Forget intent and disposition — the publication of this cartoon is problematic. In other words, it is not improving things. Addressing it, I think, improves things.

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  19. If the cartoon is “racist” or “certainly racist” or “obviously racist,” why did so many people not see it for what it is? Shakha’s answer is “white privilege.” Maybe. But Carl’s analogy to Teletubbies seems apt. Tinky-Winky, with his lavender outfit, his purse, his occasional dragging up in Laa-Laa’s tutu, is obviously an attempt to promote the homosexual agenda. If some people can’t see what is certainly pro-homosexual, it’s because the forces of homosexuality have already been so successful, for homosexualism is a Shadow which, like white privilege, has the power to cloud men’s minds.

    I’m reluctant to attribute ideas and motives to people that they themselves don’t know they have unless there’s other evidence of those ideas. That takes chutzpah — the same kind of psychologizing chutzpah that says ‘My interpretation of you is correct, and if you don’t agree, you’re in denial.’

    For the Shakhas and Sharptons to say, “We find this offensive regardless of intent, regardless of others’ interpretations,” fine. Alotta (@21) says that this result (and I haven’t seen any others yet) makes it racist. But who should have this power of definition? Whose results count?

    But to decree what something really is or what someone’s intentions and motives really are is not just arrogant, it goes against what we know about the social construction of reality. And it’s pretty clear in this case that there’s a lot of disagreement about whose construction is going to obtain.

    (Of course, in our hearts, we know that Berger-Luckman applies only to other people. They construct reality; I objectively perceive it.)

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  20. @ 26 – I think I should clarify myself a bit. The way I think about it is this: if someone believes that this is truly a racist cartoon then it will affect them as such- regardless of the intent of the creator. If someone does not see this as a racial cartoon, then for them it is not racist. Because the cartoon can be interpreted multiple ways, it has multiple realities. That may sound corny, but it’s the easiest way for me to explain my thought process here. I don’t think one ‘result’ counts more than another- just that we can’t say that people who believe this cartoon to be racist aren’t allowed to feel outrage because we can’t prove that the cartoonist sat at his desk thinking horrible racist thoughts while drawing the cartoon.

    A lame analogy would be belief or non-belief in God. (please don’t flame me for comparing racism to belief in God, it’s all I can think of right now)

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  21. i heard an interesting discussion about this on NPR (wow, why do i say that so often?) and my feeling is that the cartoon really reflects a lack of consideration or judgment. i doubt the intent was racist, but clearly the artist and however many editors who signed off on it simply didn’t bother to think about how the cartoon would be received.

    now one could argue that this is a simple oversight – ooops, we didn’t know anyone would take offense! but i think it really reflects a total lack of racial consciousness. that being said, i myself didn’t see it as racist either. but this issue isn’t how i or any other single person see it. the issue is that journalists have a responsibility to consider how their entire audience will receive something. and what it shows is a real absence of racial awareness or consciousness.

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  22. I think it’s interesting that people believe that there were no racial motives implied by the artist given the choice of motif. I was raised in an overtly racist environment, and I don’t find it particularly remarkable that such blatantly racist and violent perspectives find widespread currency and are viewed as acceptable. This is the kind of stuff we should expect from the New York Post, Fox News, and other outlets. They have long been (at least the Post) and continue to be outlets for racist propaganda. These bastards need to be held to some accountability for what they print, particularly given the contraction of the media industry and the importance of that industry for the functioning of a democracy. Real cartoonists can’t even get syndication anymore (take a peek at poor Tom Tomorrow’s web site..), yet racist shils are selling cartoons in big markets.

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  23. What I find most interesting is the efforts to disarm racial critiques, as if such criticism were dangerous. The work to dis-empower race, to make racism less a category and process of power but instead a sphere of contention seems to me a mechanism to make race less of a relation between people, and more of what we seen in Carl’s comments: something that happens in people’s heads and dispositions – either in the heads of racists or sensitive/irritable/biased minorities.

    Race then becomes an individual category – we can contest its existence (“I don’t see it so it doesn’t exist,” “You and Sharpton silence me by playing the race card and hence silence debate”). And this strikes me as far more dangerous than any critique (from below) of racism.

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  24. Am I seriously reading a group of sociologists all falling over each other to argue that:

    1.) They’d never before heard of racist propaganda that compared African Americans/Africans to apes or monkeys? (Ex: the misuse of Darwinism to argue that Blacks were an intermediate “less evolved” link between Whites and apes*? The awful McCain supporters selling “Curious George” T-shirts with the Obama 08 logo beneath them**? Horrible racist terms like “porch monkey,” or “knuckle dragger” or “yard ape***?” )

    and

    2.) that because they’ve personally never noticed it, then it can’t possibly be real or significant?

    Seriously?

    *(http://science.kukuchew.com/tag/ape/)
    **(http://blog.ruderetro.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/obama_monkey.jpg)
    ***(http://www.racialslurs.com/?sort=represents)

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  25. Also @20–The fairly widespread association between rats and “disease,” “dirt” and “thievery” does immediately suggest that any group which is being compared to rats is not getting a positive spin put on it, yes. However, even if you’ve never come across propaganda comparing Blacks to apes or monkeys, it isn’t hard to make the same associations= “primitive,” “savage,” “violent,” “stupid or simple” (compared to humans at least,) “less-evolved,” “jungle dwelling,” etc…. I mean, as racist slurs go, it isn’t any more subtle than the rats=Jews comparison, and it certainly isn’t any more flattering.

    Granted, yes, people will write in and say “but I don’t think of apes as savage or violent or stupid, I think of them as beautiful and intelligent and sociable and gentle…so therefore, maybe it isn’t racist to compare them to African Americans after all..?” Right, right…and those skinhead kids that stand on street corners and make loud monkey noises* every time a Black person walks by are just ardent admirers of the work of Diane Fossey. Turns out rats are intelligent and clean and sociable too, and make quite good pets (far better than primates,) but if someone calls you a rat, it still isn’t a compliment.

    (*I’ve personally seen this happen)

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  26. To me the connection to historic racist depictions in this particular cartoon is very clear. The caption makes no sense to me otherwise. In my judgment it’s a racist cartoon.

    On Shakha’s @30 answer: When I think about this answer broadly, I don’t find it very satisfactory. Couldn’t one generically claim that any denial of racism “dis-empowers race”, even in cases where we would all agree the claim is false? Because not every claim of racism is undeniably true, it is only reasonable that those who doubt a claim can raise the issue, including in cases where many think they’re wrong.
    One thing I have found to be weak about a lot of the “racism” literature is that it often provides no analytic definition of what racism is, even when the term is used a lot. Like this discussion, it seems to mostly rely on a I-know-it-when-I-see-it-standard. Isn’t there a better approach?
    @30 “something that happens in people’s heads and dispositions”: Some respected scholars claim that race ultimately exists only as a category in people’s heads (e.g., “Race: The Power of an Illusion”). How is that different from the view you criticize in @30?

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  27. Am I seriously reading a group of sociologists all falling over each other to argue that

    This is one of the reasons I think we should have “Whom Shall We Purge?” as the ASA theme every 10 years. That way we can all get together and make sure we have whatever cultural knowledge and beliefs that the majority thinks are essential to being a sociologist. We could discuss what would be appropriate content, but presenting this cartoon and boxes “[ ] not racist, [ ] racist, [ ] clearly racist” would be one possible item.

    (Tangent: is it “Whom Shall We Purge?” or “Who Shall We Purge?”)

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  28. @38. Yes, I concede that you are made of a purer moral fiber than I am and that my tendency to regard these discussions as quickly devolving into ideological preening puts me on the list of purge-possibilities. I would just hope that I go after that guy Carl.

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  29. @36. I’m usually conservative on language, but I’m willing to let whom disappear for the most part, as it has been doing for many decades. Whomever is making a big comeback for some reason, often in ways that should drive grammarians to drink. And I agree with Jeremy (@35) on the purge, though mostly because I’d like to see Drek’s robe.

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  30. I stand by my previous assertion that the “well, I’ve never heard of it, so it must not be that relevant” line of reasoning is a weak one.

    Also, the “huh, I guess I just don’t see racism, and I’M not familiar with any racial stereotypes, so I (being beyond and above all of this) simply wouldn’t have noticed” line of argument is also a form of moral preening.

    Finally, Jeremy, you know better than any of us that Darwinism/theories of evolution have been, and are still, misused to claim that some human racial groups are superior to others. I’m pointing out that, yes, those stereotypes exist, and yes they have been, and are, pervasive.

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  31. VV: Sure. As a historical matter, I think the role of Darwinism per se in the use of apes/monkeys to demean black people is overstated, as my understanding is that it predates Darwin and, of course, nowadays one might see it used disproportionately by people who don’t even believe in evolution.

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  32. Comrades, I confess that I have betrayed the people, the party and the revolution. I humbly ask forgiveness and pray for an honorable death with Comrade Jeremy at my side.

    Shakha, thanks so much for your concern. Fortunately I find intelligent dialogue with knowledgeable peers stimulating, not silencing.

    To cast another beautiful ripple upon these troubled waters, here is one more pebble re: how to interpret this particular cartoon, which is after all our topic, from the good wittgensteinians who wrote Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution. In the chapter titled “The Terrible Simplifications” we find:

    “That anybody should attempt to deal with difficult situations by denying that a problem is a problem appears, at first sight, rather unlikely…. In more abstract terms, the typical formula involved here is: there is no problem [e.g. with a cartoon, with an interpretation of a cartoon]… and anybody who sees a problem must be mad or bad–in fact, he [sic] may be the only source of whatever difficulty is admitted. That is, denial of problems and attacks on those either pointing them out or trying to deal with them go together….

    This compound of denial and attack depends upon gross simplification of complexities of interaction in social systems and… can be maintained only by refusing to see this complexity, and then defining one’s tunnel vision as a realistic and honest attitude towards life….”

    I’m sure there’s something here for everyone on the thread to take comfort from. Thanks to all.

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  33. Jay, when I mentioned this discussion to a (liberal) colleague and prefaced with description of the cartoon, she laughed aloud and immediately identified its source as the conservative media. She got the racism angle once I explained it to her, but her laughter had come from the interpretation you just offered. Those darn Republicans calling Democrats chimps again.

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  34. Jay– You ask a question that can’t be answered outside of context, I think.

    Here is my take on the cartoon–it was meant to be a double entendre. The first/overt meaning was, “the stimulus was so bad it must have been written by a chimp.” That was my first interpretation, too, and then, a fraction of a second later, the secondary meaning hit me: “That chimp is Obama…and he’s…oh shit.” The cartoonist submitted it, and the Post probably ran it for the following reasons:

    1.) Because, once challenged, they knew they could claim the first meaning, while pretending to be ignorant of the second.
    2.) Because the ensuing uproar would get them a lot of publicity, and, probably, lead to better sales in the long run (I bet it will, too–shock journalism sells.)
    3.) They probably all sat around in the editing room and whipped themselves into some dumb-ass self-righteous frenzy about how, by running cartoons depicting gays as swishy transvestites and Obama voters as Arab terrorists, and Blacks as monkeys, they were the true guardians of free speech/slayers of the great PC Satan who threatens to censor all dissenting opinions by locking everyone up in lesbian-feminist-Black Power Gulags and banning Christmas.

    The idea that not a single person at the Post picked up on the cartoon’s secondary implication, though, just doesn’t pass the bullshit test. Remember that woman in the CA Republican party who circulated that “Obama Food Stamp” flyer that depicted Obama surrounded by pictures of watermelons and fried chicken? When she got called out on it, she tried to claim that she had simply never HEARD of ANY of those stereotypes portraying Blacks as welfare recipients or linking them to eating nothing but watermelon and fried chicken.* Basically people evaluated her claim that a reasonably culturally literate middle-aged White American adult would not know any of those stereotypes (and would, further, randomly and accidentally end up using them in a way that conveyed a completely coherent, albeit insulting, message) and cried “Bullshit.”

    We assume, I think, that the Post’s editors and the cartoonist intended for the secondary meaning to be there, because the idea that not a single one of them (all reasonably culturally literate American adults, and people in the NEWS business moreover, people who have covered this last campaign as well as endless other racially-charged current events in New York and beyond for decades) had EVER HEARD of the Blacks/Apes** stereotype and still just accidentally ended up using it in a way that nonetheless communicated a coherent message, is just too far fetched. Also, I think we can see the additional profit/publicity motive at play from printing something just racist enough that it shocks and grabs attention, while still subtle enough that there is some space for deniability.

    *the watermelon/chicken thing is an old stereotype to be sure, I’m not even sure where it originated. Maybe out of the old Blackface/Minstrel shows?
    ** Which as Jeremy helpfully points out, is so pervasive that it both predates Darwin and can, and has been, utilized by people who don’t even believe in the theory of evolution.

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  35. @49 – This is a good analysis. An interesting question is our ideas about what everybody knows everybody knows about stereotypes, and where those come from. Like you, when the watermelon thing came out during the campaign and the woman said she had never heard of it, I thought that was clear and obvious bullshit. I was quite surprised when Carl said earlier in this thread that he wasn’t aware of Blacks/apes, although I’ll take him at his word. And me, I really-truly didn’t know anything about Jews/rats before this thread, and I can imagine somebody might think, “Come on, how can somebody by a sociology professor and not know that,” etc..

    Although: part of what was going on with the watermelon incident is that with the flyer the use of a watermelon would have been a complete non sequitur without it invoking race. As in: you just happened to choose a watermelon? Whereas, with the chimp, this was a huge newsstory in tabloid news world, even if the NYT apparently didn’t run it at all at first. And the equation of ineptitude and monkeyness has its own long context, as sites comparing Bush to a chimp suggest. Of course, that could all be taken as supporting the “we can do this and have plausible deniability” interpretation as well.

    I have to say that, whatever lurks in the hearts of the New York Post, the debates on line are very interesting for how they are bringing out different ideas of what racism is, how one decides what is racist, etc.

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  36. @43- I would also respond to this post by asking another set of questions.

    1. Is there a difference between situations in which members of a minority group are stereotyped by members of the majority group (i.e. Whites using negative language like “ape” or “coon” describe Blacks,) and the reverse (i.e. Blacks using terms like “honkey” to describe Whites?)

    2. Is there a difference between members of a group using insulting language or imagery to describe EACH OTHER (i.e. Blacks calling each other n-gger* or Whites referring to Bush as a chimp) and people disparaging members of groups they don’t belong to?

    When I pose these questions to my students, they all say “yes, there is a difference” although it can be hard for them (and me) to always articulate why. Basically insults, words, images and stereotypes just take on more or less perceived weight depending on the social position of the people using them and that of the people they’re being used against. Also, that making fun of yourself (or someone like you,) and making fun of someone else are usually qualitatively different things.

    * why did I refuse to type this word, but still typed the others? I have no idea, except, well, it just seems too bad to type.

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  37. Also……

    Yes, being disagreed with, being told your argument is bone-headed or academically tone-deaf, being called out on a lack of cultural literacy, or EVEN being tarred with the sickening, disgusting and hurtful allegation of being “un-sociological,” is exactly like being censored, except in the latter case you’ve been imprisoned, threatened, and had your printing press/xerox machine/computer taken away by jack-booted agents of the State, and, in the former, your feelings were probably a little hurt.

    Claiming to be attacked or censored, when in fact, you are being disagreed with (in fairly dry academic language, no less…with limp epithets like “privileged” and “unsociological”) is both yet another form of ideological preening and also lame.

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  38. @ violet and jeremy, thanks for getting the analysis back on track.

    @ violet, as a teacher you must know that one can never underestimate the shocking disconnects of situated knowledge and ignorance of particular human beings. Nor, if you have tried to communicate a lesson in one context and then checked to see if it ‘generalized’, can you be surprised by any chasm that appears between what people ‘should’ know and what they do functionally know. So yes, ignorance is a lame argument. Ignorance is lame. It is also ubiquitous. Now the question is what we want to teach ignorant people, see below.

    @ jeremy, along these lines the full story of my Black/ape awareness is (of course) a little more complicated. I learned the vulgar darwinian just-so story about apes and race no later than college, at least 25 years ago. It’s in the hopper with all sorts of other encounters with Blacks and monkeys, most of them I am happy to say positive and affirming. The pathway of associations that would get me from ape to Black is accordingly quite long, bumpy, overgrown and crisscrossed with more pleasant and well-beaten routes. The upshot is that I like both monkeys and Black people; but in just about any situation, my brain will not produce an association between them without explicit prompting.

    What was entirely new to me more recently was the revelation that for (some) Black folks, monkeys and Blacks are standing right next to each other on the main highway. It’s still not a natural match for me, but if I’m in that country I can speak that language now.

    Re: tactics, it’s always possible to disagree intelligently. The thing I think is tragic about all this, in the proper sense of that term as self-destruction, is that people who honestly don’t make these negative associations are being taught to do so in the context of an artifact that may well be racist, but offers the kind of polysemia that could allow that message to go completely lost. In the re/construction of race this is a self-inflicted bad moment, in my view.

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  39. Violet (@49) says that my simple question (@43)”can’t be answered outside of context.” The context is the same as that of the cartoon — a newspaper. The Post if you like. Lots of people had no trouble labeling the cartoon as obviously, clearly, definitely, terribly, horribly, no good, very bad racist. But nobody has answered the question about the prose version?

    If the cartoonist wanted to suggest that the chimp was Obama and that Obama was chimp-like, he could have easily given the chimp some Obama-like features. Cartoonists do that all the time. Or, as some cartoonists do, he could have written the name Obama on the chimp. But he didn’t.

    To say, without any actual evidence, that those guys at the Post are so fiendishly clever that they deliberately created plausible deniability and that they knew the cartoon would provoke exactly the reaction that it did attributes powers to them that I doubt they have. And as Jeremy implies, it also requires Shadow-like powers to know what went on in their hearts and minds. (Note to Jeremy. Thank you. I’m delighted that someone picked up on the allusion. I’m surprised that anyone still knows about Mr. Cranston?)

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  40. As a friend noted in a conversation: the basic currency of cartoonists is symbolism and representation. Their entire trade is based on the idea that images can “stand in” for things. It continues to strike me as odd, shocking even, to claim that a cartoonist would be ignorant of the connotations of images he or she uses. It’s akin to suggesting that those who write can’t be held to account for the words they use insofar as they can’t be expected to know their meanings.

    To say nothing of the fact that this particular cartoonist has a long history of portraying Blacks, gays, and women in unfavorable ways: Blacks have massive asses and like to pandered to, gays dress up in women’s clothing, act like idiots, and are akin to sheep fuckers, and women are pathetic and often repulsive.

    I stand by my comment (30) – that much of this discussion suggests that race an individual-level phenomena of intent, impression, bias, personal reaction, etc. rather than relation that is mobilized in the service of domination.

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  41. @ shakha, “It continues to strike me as odd, shocking even, to claim that a cartoonist would be ignorant of the connotations of images he or she uses. It’s akin to suggesting that those who write can’t be held to account for the words they use insofar as they can’t be expected to know their meanings.”

    Perhaps the miscommunication here is between those who have read Derrida and those who haven’t, because you’ve just described as shocking what he argues is the most ordinary constitutive thing about texts.

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  42. “It continues to strike me as odd, shocking even, to claim that a cartoonist would be ignorant of the connotations of images he or she uses.” And it strikes me as odd that a cartoonist who wished to create an image of Obama as a monkey would draw a monkey that in no way looks like Obama.

    When a political cartoonist wants to equate a president with a monkey, he draws something like this:

    And when he wishes to denigrate an ethnic group by equating them with apes, he draws something like this:

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  43. Next time I say or write something offensive I’ll make sure, when called out, to reference Derrida and ask the offended person to read this thread. I couldn’t have possibly meant anything by it. I certainly did not. I’ll make sure to note that the offense is in their head, not my words. If anyone is to blame it’s either something else entirely (the multiple meanings of language) or their own sensitivity.

    I’m again puzzled that we continue to talk about intent. As if offense can only be taken if the other person intended it to be offensive. The point of #55 is not that the cartoonist clearly intended Obama, but that it’s far more reasonable that the connection will be made, than not made. The tie between Stimulus-Obama and Obama-Ape is not so distant that it requires mental wizardry. Why would every major news publication have picked up on this by now were the connection so ridiculous and tenuous? If you’re a cartoonist it’s your job to think about the implications of images. If you’re an editor it’s your job to think about the implication of words. To re-iterate Violet, it doesn’t pass the sniff test.

    The majority of race scholarship today notes that acts of racism are decreasingly the kinds of obvious, in your face things cited in the pictures above. Racism doesn’t require that we blurt out racial epithets, beat people, put on black-face, or draw Obama as an actual chimp (though we still do all of these things). The far subtler forms of racism deployed today have a more insidious effect: making racism and racial inequalities appear to be in the heads of and products of the actions of racial minorities.

    Which is why I am acting, here, like a dog with a chew toy he just won’t let go. From my perspective the solution is to confront and shed light on such subtle forms, not work to explain them away.

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  44. Wow. I saw this post and thought “great, now I have a source for that racist cartoon.” I saw it, I saw race. Immediately. I have come to understand what the second interpretation was, but THAT ONE had to be explained to me. But, that is my humble reading. Without wading into this long conversation I didn’t know existed until I read Drek’s post on his blog, I just wanted to entire the conversation by pointing out this:
    http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2008/february13/eber-021308.html

    Now, the extent that I have issues with IAT has been discussed over at RacismReview, along with a long discussion of underlying cognitive structures. But, the association between Blacks and chimps is something that has been tested – recently.

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  45. Shamus, Carl here. We do not have a fight about whether it’s legitimate to read the cartoon racially. It is, as I for one said at #s 12, 20, 23. There is a conventional and robust chain of associations that will take us from dead chimp to dead Obama (great detailed analysis by Prof. Susurro here), a history of brutally racist practice in symbolic form.

    We do not have a fight about whether racism still exists, it does, or whether it’s ‘all in people’s heads’, it’s not (although the kind that’s in people’s heads is the only kind that makes a cartoon worth arguing over), or whether it operates both existentially and symbolically, it does. We, everyone here as far as I can tell, agree about ALL of that. Honest, dude, you can stop telling the grannies how to suck eggs.

    If there’s a fight, and I’m not even sure there is one, it’s about whether this image can ALSO be legitimately read in some other way. I realize it’s important to create space for the racist reading, but we’re square on that. So now that’s settled, is it anywhere in that nexus of sociology and activism you’re working with to see those other readings and perhaps even consider that they might have some contingent, situated weight?

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  46. YouTube has clips of Jennifer Eberhardt presenting the research that Pitse1eh (@59) referred to. These are chopped up bits from a longer talk. Here’s one:

    Anyone who teaches race ought to have students watch these.

    The recent exchange between Carl and Shakha gets back to where Carl came in — asking whether a cigar is always a penis, a chimp always an African. You can draw a cigar so that it looks like a penis, and you can draw it so that it looks like a cigar. Or like something else. The more ambiguous the drawing, the more room for interpretation, even if at some unconscious level lots of people associate the cigar with a penis.

    “Why would every major news publication have picked up on this by now were the connection so ridiculous and tenuous?” asks Shakha (@58). I think moral entrepreneurship had a lot to do with it. The Post ran many other cartoons, far more offensive and deliberately so, by this same cartoonist, and they never became news. That’s what moral entrepreneurs do. Awareness of a problem doesn’t just happen all by itself.

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  47. Of course other readings are possible. It strikes me as silly to point this out. It is the implication of this line of reasoning that has struck me as so problematic. Again, in making this argument what pops up again and again is that race and racism is a matter of interpretation (of how actors think about and read things) rather than a relationship of power. This pops up from the beginning, to the end of this thread.

    @12 (Carl): “the offense is not definitively that the cartoon IS racist, but that it might foreseeably be interpreted that way by ‘motivated’ readers, causing them distress.”

    @62 (Jay): “The more ambiguous the drawing, the more room for interpretation, even if at some unconscious level lots of people associate the cigar with a penis.”

    And this is what I object to.

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  48. So, a question. And really, I just want your input on this. I am still very much learning about these issues, so this is my thought:

    Isn’t it a part of white privilege that whites may read this image differently? That whites have been de-raced/ de-ethnicized (if that’s a word), and so they live lives on a day-to-day basis where the underlying racial reading of this message may not be immediately apparent? And that they live lives where they can afford not to immediately read the cartoon as chimp = Obama?

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  49. @64: I’m sure others know this better than I, and perhaps they’ll chime in. But one of the classic articulations of white privilege is from Peggy McIntosh. You can find an excerpt of it here.

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  50. Huh. Well, I guess this is what I’m thinking — and Jay’s clip really brought this home to me.

    There has been a lot of talk about confirmation bias, or that some readers may be “motivated” to read the cartoon in a racist way, rather than the (I guess “obvious” to everyone else besides me) reading of the “escape chimp, stimulus is so bad it could have been written by a chimp” way. There is agreement that the “secondary” reading of this comic as racist is fairly obvious. My problem then is the implicit argument that there are some overly sensitive “motivated” readers who are going out of their way to be offended — like the Annie Hall clip. My response to that is why are some people so “motivated”? Isn’t it because of living in a “damaged culture”? (Taking from McIntosh — I loved that phrasing, thanks shakha). The daily psychological cost of living in that culture makes something like this comic much more damaging. (Not to even MENTION research that indicates how the perpetuation of these stereotypes has high cost for life chances — and not just the right to life itself).

    What makes me sad is that we are all not such motivated readers. That we don’t seem to grasp how this seemingly non-important comic is just symptomatic of a larger and terribly insidious problem that is detrimental to all who are exposed to it. Yes, there are two readings. However, the fact that there is this underlying racial reading that was readily apparent to many-many-many people (white and people of color) who saw it and read it as racist before it was analyzed and broken apart, gives us some insight into how this underlying raced system is operating. And to not acknowledge that is not just problematic for people of color and blacks who are stereotyped, but for everyone living in the “damaged culture” regardless of race or ethnicity.

    And white privilege operates in such a way that whites are not constantly thinking about such issues — allowing them (if they so choose) not to be “motivated” readers. But, here, privilege is a misnomer. Yes, it works in this way. Yes, it IS a privilege not to be subject to the psychological effects of living day-to-day in a raced society. But, at the same time, it creates a disadvantage because this privilege makes it possible to not see the other reading at all. Or, if you see it, to minimize it. And to do so makes you less aware of exactly how “damaged” our culture is. And, if you are not aware of it, you can’t challenge it in yourself, others, and comic strips.

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  51. Sorry, I’m still working on specificity of language choice — which makes blogging great.

    Of course Whites are subject to the psychological disadvantages of living in a racist system. What I was referring to is not that we aren’t psychologically damaged, but instead that our damage is different. We are psychologically damaged by taking in these images, even if just implicitly. But we are not damaged in many other ways — getting the message that we are less worthy. That if we get upset about something, it’s because we are too sensitive or playing the race card. Our damage comes from taking in those messages about members of other races, rather than directed towards ourselves. Just wanted to clarify.

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  52. @ ptseh1eh, you’ve put this very well. I’ve taught using McIntosh’s piece, she’s a great place to restart. So here are some things to think about that might follow from this kind of argument:

    a.) We live in a damaged culture. How damaged? How comprehensively? It may be that any racism at all damages the whole culture. Or it may be that the culture is fundamentally structured by race (and sex, and gender, and class, and physical ability, and age, etc.). In either case, cartoons that are not about race are just as racist, because they enjoy and deploy exactly that privileged ‘unmotivation’ you’re talking about. Until nothing’s about race, everything’s about race.

    If we’re serious here, it’s all struggle, all the time and piddling around with no-duh glosses of cherrypicked cartoons is so far down the action agenda that anyone wasting time with it is clearly a racist.

    b.) Thinking ‘motivated’ by racial trauma is inherently more ‘true’ than ‘privileged’ thinking not so motivated. It may be that privileged people can never ‘get it’ and the best they can do is shut up. Or it may be that they can learn to think correctly, but only as unquestioning subalterns of those whose experiences are, or in principle could be, racially traumatic.

    c.) Because racial trauma is the source of special powers of perception and analysis, anti-racists share an interest in its maintenance with racists. Any lessening of racial tension or suggestion that people could be mistaken about racial trauma must be vigorously rejected.

    If these positions seem a little extreme, maybe there’s a conversation here after all.

    @ shakha, yes, race is a relationship of power. It is also:

    *a scheme of perception
    *a canon of interpretation
    *an assemblage of biological and cultural aggregates
    *a situated performance
    *an identity – asserted and ascribed
    *a source of pride
    *a historical narrative
    *a myth

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  53. (I feel like I should introduce some combative snarky aside to increase the chances that this thread will go all the way to 100 comments, but I cannot think of anything good.)

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  54. FYI I am working hard and had not seen the news about the chimp being shot (still haven’t really read the story), so when I saw the cartoon, the only frame available to me for making any sense of it at all was a racial frame and a connection with all the police shootings of Black people.

    As others have said, the racial images in the culture are so strong that they are available subconsciously whether you like it or not or want them there or not.

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  55. I saw two different TV news stories on the chimp while I was traveling (the second was about the “horrifying 911 call”). After the cartoon story broke, it was said somewhere that the NYT had originally not reported it at all, so I think my familiarity with the chimp attack would have been far less if I’d been following my normal newsreading sources instead of traveling. I’m presuming my first reaction the cartoon would have been much different if I didn’t already have “chimp attack = prominent news story” in my mind when I saw it.

    I presume also my first reaction would have been much different if I had “stimulus bill author = Obama” in my mind when I saw it, but that’s a different matter.

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  56. There’s no doubt that the ten cartoons are offensive. (There’s a lot of doubt as to whether they’re even mildly funny or incisive.) But none of them is about race except perhaps the one with Freddy Ferrer kissing Al Sharpton’s ass, and central idea of that cartoon is Freddy Ferrer as ass-kisser, not Sharpton as black.

    For those ten cartoons to be dispositive (@73)as to whether the chimp-stimulus cartoon is racist, you have to assume a. that people who draw cartoons mocking GLTBQ, Democratic politicians, and amputees are also racists, and b. that their racism pervades every drawing they make that involves primates.

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  57. You didn’t happen to notice the size of Sharpton’s ass? Get it? Ha ha! Black people have big butts!

    This too has a history. Saartjie Baartman would be the best example. (Also known as Sarah Baartman). She was paraded around Europe, displayed at circuses to show how Black bodies were different than Whites. The story is quite horrible. In fact France continued to display her remains for almost a century. Mandela had to fight to have them returned. France only recently agreed to do so, as I recall.

    See here. The drawing is particularly revealing.

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  58. I find it plausible that the cartoonist did not mean for the chimp to stand in for Obama. I get the “so bad a chimp could have written it” joke. And as offensive as this cartoonist’s work has been in the past, I still can’t see him joking about shooting the president.

    But intention is irrelevant, as far as I’m concerned. If it wasn’t the artist’s intention to perpetuate the pain of racism, but the cartoon had that effect, he should take it back, apologize, and learn something from the experience. If, instead, the artist reacts defensively and doesn’t acknowledge the pain to which he (however inadvertently) contributed, than he might as well have drawn a hateful cartoon intentionally.

    Here’s a recent example from my own life. My husband, who is half-Jewish, tried on a hat the other day. He in the hat immediately reminded me of Fivel, that mouse from the Disney cartoon about a family of mice immigrating to the US. I know – bad movie, but evidently it stuck with me from childhood. I said to my husband, “you look like a little mouse.” He replied, “wow, that’s a little anti-Semitic.” He was kind of kidding, but kind of not. And I felt really ashamed of myself. I mean, I’ve read Maus! I know all about the ways in which the Nazis equated Jews with vermin. I didn’t mean to contribute to that legacy of oppression. But it doesn’t matter what my intent was – or that Fivel is super-adorable, wears a cute hat, and is not at all vermin-like – what matters is that my words ended up yet again drawing a comparison between a Jewish person and a rodent. Not cool. And if the cartoonist doesn’t think black people should be compared to apes, he should apologize for drawing a cartoon that had that effect.

    So that’s how I see it. Feel free to get all Derridian on my ass now.

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  59. For those ten cartoons to be dispositive (@73)as to whether the chimp-stimulus cartoon is racist, you have to assume a. that people who draw cartoons mocking GLTBQ, Democratic politicians, and amputees are also racists, and b. that their racism pervades every drawing they make that involves primates.

    No, what it speaks to is our assessment of the likelihood that the cartoonist was perfectly well aware of how the chimp thing would be read. You ask yourself, “Is the guy who drew this the sort of person who could draw this cartoon with nary an inkling of how it might be read as racist, or is he the sort of person who routinely traffics in the crassest of stereotypes?” Then someone shows you the other cartoons and you say, “Well, that’s that settled, then.”

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  60. I think Kieran is right that the 10 cartoons are dispositive enough as regards the cartoonist. I have little doubt what he intended. But I think it’s important (e.g. (@78) not to lose sight of the point that the racist — or not — intentions of Delonas (the cartoonist) are not really very important here. That’s basically between him and his god/wife/friends/whoever. People do sometimes say dumb stuff without thinking, and yes, sometimes they are misunderstood/misinterpreted. I doubt he was, but I don’t really care. Newspapers, on the other hand, have whole teams of people to vet what they publish. They don’t just blurt things out. They measure message, and they measure it carefully. To focus on whether Delonas could have been thinking something else given that there are other interpretations, or to survey ourselves for how we read it, obscures the point that it is simply implausible the newspaper had to know how many people would read it, and published it anyway. It’s not a case of some guy writing something racist. It’s a case of a *major* American paper deciding to publish something that they had to know would offend many people because they figured they’d sell some papers and that in a pinch they could always position themselves as victims of scary sensitive people like Shakha.

    Remember that whole, umm, aren’t we sociologists thing Shamus wrote? Who cares about little wage-earning individuals. It’s powerful institutions that we need to worry about.

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  61. @ Kieren, I do think those cartoons make that case. But the instant problem with that for the current analysis is what might be called the “South Park Dilution.” First, because South Park has pop-culturalized the offensive stereotyping of everything in sight. Second, because in doing so they have knocked the particularity out of offensiveness, and therefore third, they have made it extra ridiculous for any one target of their corrosive japes (Scientology/Isaac Hayes, e.g.) to take particular offense.

    Their strategy, as I understand it, is to disarm comics like this one by submerging it in an acid bath of democratized stigma. Everybody’s ridiculous, everybody’s vulnerable, everyone gets their turn. This to me is a coherent strategy of mutually assured destruction that has the great merits of humor and practicality, unlike the walking on eggshells discussed at #78.

    Insofar as Delonas’ targets are restricted to the liberal holies he doesn’t get the equal-opportunity pass the South Park boys do. It then makes sense to engage him as political discourse and question whether he crossed the line. But it’s dangerous too because South Park is part of the cultural context for these sorts of utterances, so for big sections of the audience any kind of particularized offense is going to look merely ridiculous.

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  62. @ jdwblah, I’ve given up on arguing intention at this point because in the context of the discussion as it’s evolved here, it’s irrelevant – either because one might require more than robust inference to ascribe intention to people, or because lack of intent does not excuse hurtful conduct.

    But since I’ve got several close friends on staff at a major metropolitan newspaper, I did want to correct the inferential element you’ve proposed at #80. The newspaper business has always been about quick turnaround, and there’s not nearly as much careful editorial oversight as you might think. But this is even more true recently, when the new media and the economic crisis have decimated print media and led to massive layoffs up and down the org chart. I guarantee that there are not “whole teams” combing ordinary content. So it’s not even slightly implausible that this cartoon slipped through what is likely a very overworked, understaffed, and jury-rigged vetting system.

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  63. We’re trying to guess what was in Delonas’s mind when he drew the cartoon. Here’s a guy who has no qualms about drawing deliberately offensive cartoons. Heather Mills, for Godssake. Those ten cartoons also show that when he wants to refer to someone specific, he writes in the name (apparently he’s aware of his artistic limitations). He does this with Mills, Sharpton, Ferrer, McGrevey, Minelli, et. al. In this cartoon, the chimp has no characteristics that resemble Obama, nor is there any writing identifying the chimp as Obama. And if you look at those other cartoons, they certainly don’t suggest that Delonas is the kind of guy who craftily creates plausible deniability. Subtlety is not his long suit. Offensiveness is.

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  64. @carl — I am not many degrees removed from the inside of NYC papers. I know well that teams don’t comb ordinary content. *Lots* of eyes *do* look at the cartoon on page six (probably the second most read page in the Post). This wasn’t some bs that an idiot slipped into a court story.

    So for those who want to argue intent, for the Post, there’s pretty robust inference.

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  65. @83. Yes, people are trying to guess what was in Delonas mind, and in doing so, they are totally missing the point. Who cares whether he is a provocateur or a racist. The problem is the post. It’s easier to look into a company’s strategic choices than it is to look into a cartoonists soul. And there is little doubt that the Post saw dollars in racism.

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  66. We’re trying to guess what was in Delonas’s mind when he drew the cartoon.

    I reiterate jdwblahblah: actually, no, we’re not. If the point of racism is a question of what’s going on is some guy’s head, we understand racism rather poorly.

    As for the other explanations, forgive me, but I still don’t understand. We three explanations in this thread:

    1.) “The intent wasn’t racist”
    2.) “Other readings are possible”
    3.) “The paper was too busy”

    I hope that by now we’ve thrown out (1), if either because of logic or through akphd’s powerful testimony. As I propose above, this is not, or has it ever been, the question.

    (3) is clearly lame and, as (85) points out, questionable at best.

    So we’re left with (2). I fully concede the case. Sure, other readings are possible. They always are. So what? Why are we bending over backwards to provide them? Why the mental gymnastics to excuse what scores of Blacks have read as racism? I honestly don’t get it. If we’re trying to make some academic point about Derrida or Bakhtinian heteroglossia, sure. But is that really what we want to drive home when talking about racism? “Many meanings are possible.” That is our answer? We don’t want to hold the Post or the author to account? Okay. Then what is the answer? It’s all just too complicated, contradictory, and contingent. That’s the position we’re trying to stake out?

    I really don’t get it. I’m not being cute here. I’m saying, “This is racist. It should be addressed.” The other position is what? “This could be racist but it couldn’t be. It’s all very hard. Multiple meanings are possible.” How, exactly, do we address racism from this position?

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  67. My own stance is not that “other readings are possible.” My stance is “other readings are more straightforward and parsimonious than the ‘is racist’ reading.” Other readings do not require misunderstanding the authorship of the stimulus bill. Other readings do not require downplaying what was, in fact, a big news story in some quarters.

    I, myself, do not support the idea of enthusing about the termination of a newspaper employee from what seems like double-bank-shot reasoning and lots of speculation about the inner workings of newsrooms and minds. Old fashioned as this may sound, I think one should have a cautious approach in issues like “Should the newspaper fire this person?” “Should the newspaper be more vigilant about keeping some things that could be prone to some interpretations out of public view?” and, in an ambiguous situations, I’m probably going to give the benefit of the doubt for maintaining the latitude of the press.

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  68. This is really interesting, and it’s an example of how people can have vastly different interpretations of the same text: Shakha says

    1.) “The intent wasn’t racist”
    I hope that by now we’ve thrown out (1), if either because of logic or through akphd’s powerful testimony.

    I read akphd’s comment to mean just the opposite. She says, “I find it plausible that the cartoonist did not mean for the chimp to stand in for Obama.” And of her own remark that her husband found possibly anti-Semitic, she says that she had no anti-Semitic intent: “I didn’t mean to contribute to that legacy of oppression.”

    As for the idea that the Post knew what furor the cartoon would provoke, I repeat my skepticism (@54) that people or organizations know how others will react. On the way to work this morning, in the space of less than a half hour, NPR ran two stories on this topic: 1. US Air rescinded their nominal ($1-2) charge for non-alcoholic drinks. They hadn’t realized how pissed off their customers would be. 2. Tropicana changed the picture on their orange juice carton, getting rid of the straw-in-the-orange picture. Customers were upset, and now Tropicana is scrambling around trying to figure out what to do about their packaging because they greatly underestimated this negative reaction. (Changing package design isn’t cheap; neither is changing it back.)

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  69. What Jeremy and Jay said.

    “If the point of racism is a question of what’s going on is some guy’s head, we understand racism rather poorly.”

    Since this is the nth iteration of this particular point, apparently it’s durably locked into at least one head’s schemes of perception. Jay mentioned Berger and Luckmann earlier, I went the Derrida route, but these are just “mental gymnastics” and “academic points;” as though it’s really pointless to learn anything about how we construct (and distort) our worlds on the chance that we might be wrong, or there might be a better, more humane or effective way of doing it; because after all, those are just eggheads fiddling around with ideas, we’re not mistaken, and the world really is exactly the way we see it, thanks to our special x-ray race-o-matic specs right here.

    As I’ve said before, the ONLY way a cartoon is worth discussing as racist or not is on the theory that what’s in our heads matters in some way. Cartoons have no legions. They don’t have guns, they don’t shoot bullets, they don’t selectively enforce laws or write exploitive leases or deny employment or drag black bodies behind their pickup trucks. So if what’s worrying us is these existential racisms, and they should, if you think what’s in people’s heads doesn’t matter then fussing about a cartoon or an inadvertent mouse reference is unconscionable.

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  70. Jeremy’s comment at 87 is really crucial for sorting out this discussion. “Should X be fired for this?” If your definition of racist is “criminal act that should be punished by incarceration or job loss” then, of course, you worry about intent. The law distinguishes between first degree murder (homicide with intent) and manslaughter (homicide without intent). The penalties for the two crimes are markedly different, even though the victim is just as dead in either case.

    So the question is, do we focus on the victim perspective or the perpetrator perspective? The victim’s perspective focuses on why a given image draws on or evokes connections to racial hierarchies. This is legitimate. To extend the analogy, you don’t tell the parents of child killed by a speeding teenage driver that they don’t have the right to be upset with the driver, because the teen did not mean to kill their child. In fact, most people would fault the speeding teen even while recognizing that he did not mean to kill anyone. If someone publishes a cartoon that could be read is advocating the police killing of a president that is generally acknowledged to be at heightened risk of assassination, it is reasonable for others to be be upset, even if you are certain that the intent of the cartoon was different, and the alternate reading was not recognized in its production.

    The perpetrator’s view is that you shouldn’t be found guilty of “racism” unless it can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that “racism” was your motive for action. As it is virtually impossible to determine a person’s motives, even if you are that person interrogating your own subjectivity, this standard means that nobody is a racist unless they call themselves one. But the analogy of the difference between first degree murder and manslaughter gives us a way to think about the ways in which we do assign blame for actions even without intent.

    (For possible comparison, I’m remembering cases in which layout editors position the only two stories about Black people next to each other on the page, where the picture of a Black criminal will be juxtaposed with a story about a Black politician or Black student protest. There are protests about these kinds of subtle layout decisions all the time. The causes of this are doubtless unintentional connection-making by the layout editors.)

    How do we determine whether someone who harmed someone else unintentionally is culpable? One of the things we look at is remorse and a sincere apology. When a racial slur is uttered through simple ignorance and the victim complains, there are one of two types of responses. The first is a horrified, “Oh my goodness, I am so sorry, I did not realize, I did not even think of it that way.” The second is a chilly “I didn’t mean anything by it, lighten up” or, worse, “What, are you calling me a racist? You are always trying to play the race card.” In the former case, most people would accept that the error was unintentional, because of the way the person responds to criticism. And, in the latter case, most of us would assume that the perpetrator is either intentionally perpetrating racism or at least is operating from a presumption of privilege. We also examine repeat offenses: if you keep doing something even after a sincere apology, we doubt its sincerity.

    I see related problems doing racial disparities work: public officials insist that there must not be any disparities because, if there were, they would be guilty of the act of illegal discrimination and at risk of losing their jobs. Therefore, they consider it dangerous to even collect data on racial patterns because, as they say, “It could be used in the wrong way.”

    For the record, I don’t think every instance of racial stereotyping deserves job loss as a penalty. If that were the law, we’d all be unemployed. And I do think the “racial” connections for things like the cartoon are amorphous and shifting and depend on the prior experiences of the reader as well as the writer. But I do think that heightened awareness of the connections other people is a good thing, not a bad thing. It is my perception that White folks are just as quick to get upset at something that seems to stereotype them as people of color are.

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  71. My stance is “other readings are more straightforward and parsimonious than the ‘is racist’ reading.”

    Yes. But to many – particularly those who have experienced racism – the racism reading is very straightforward indeed. It’s so obvious as to be painful. By contrast, your readings are more straightforward to you. This is effectively a variant on (2) with the added argument that your “other” reading is better than all other potential readings. The argument is that your reading should be privileged, or (more accurately and fairly to your case, Jeremy), that my reading can have dangerous implications in what are ambiguous situations. I think something quite different – that the danger lies in not openly declaring this as racist. We disagree.

    What I find interesting in this disagreement is that in maintaining my position, I am being closed-minded, blind, arrogant, and ignorant. In maintaining the other position, others are being reasonable. I am compared to an inquisitor, lining up people to kill in a firing line. Name-calling is an odd strategy for the reasonable position, but as someone who is ignorant, I guess I can’t expect to understand. I also find it odd that in maintaining my position I am refusing to acknowledge that I may be wrong; in maintaining the other position just as vehemently, the others are, of course, being reasonable. In being correct you don’t have to acknowledge that you might be wrong; that’s the nice part about being right!

    None of this is at all unique in arguments. I think it takes on a particularly acrid tone when discussing racism, as the accusation is of a thing so vile and contemptible that we should deploy the term lightly and sensitively. Again, I take a different approach. I tend to think that racism is so common and everyday that we should openly declare it as such, and express our reading of it when we see it.

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  72. @90 – “How do we determine whether someone who harmed someone else unintentionally is culpable? One of the things we look at is remorse and a sincere apology.”

    This (and the rest of olderwoman’s post, esp. this paragraph) is exactly what I was trying to say above. So far the cartoonist is giving us every reason to “assume that the perpetrator is either intentionally perpetrating racism or at least is operating from a presumption of privilege.”

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  73. Re: 89, I’m not suggesting a “walking on eggshells” approach to dealing with racism. I’m suggesting the opposite: open dialogue about “what is in the heads” (based on a history of lived experiences) of people from different parts of an unequal society. People in positions of privilege are unlikely to be be willing to take responsibility and apologize for unintentionally hurtful acts unless they learn through dialogue why what is “in their heads” is not the same stuff as in the heads of the less privileged.

    The South Park approach (everyone’s ridiculous, everyone’s vulnerable) assumes that humor is operating on a level playing field, a society without pervasive inequality. If only.

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  74. (Not exactly on the most recent topics in this thread, but if we’re going to get to 100 . . .)

    Re akphd @78: “I get the “so bad a chimp could have written it” joke.” When I asked that(@43), I meant it as a question, not a joke. Maybe everyone else thought it was a joke, and that’s why nobody answered the question. What I was trying to get at is that I think that the prose version of the idea in the cartoon would have given less offense, and I’m not sure why.

    I also wondered what would happen if I showed the cartoon to my students. Would the black students immediately see what Shakha and others immediately saw and be offended? Would the whites mostly not see that meaning? And given those two reactions, what would or should happen?

    My own thought is that the best outcome would be to use it as a way to make the students aware of the history of images and ideas Shakha and others have referred to so that the white students understood what the black students saw and understood why they reacted as they did. And for that lesson, the intent of the cartoonist would be completely irrelevant.

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  75. I meant I get the cartoonist’s joke. “Uh oh, the chimp that wrote the stimulus plan is dead – we’ll have to find someone else to write the next one.” I am willing to assume that that’s the joke the cartoonist was trying to make, even if, when I saw it, I thought “yikes, is that supposed to be Obama?”

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  76. This was a fun way not to deal with revisions on a paper about discrimination for an hour.

    I wade in only to say that I am white and I saw race before any other explanation.

    “Monkey” was perhaps the most frequently given example of racist comments made to African-Americans in public places in my research (that little book I have –License to Harass: Law, Hierarchy, and Offensive Public Speech). N****r is the other contender but the list is long and certain ethnic groups have their own racial epithets — Italian-Americans among others have a racist term for blacks rarely used by other whites and so do s have one I never knew before I did this work.

    and

    In 9th grade at my (almost all-white) high school a team with a **star** African-American player was coming to play our team. A plan developed for some students to chant, “monkey, monkey” and throw bananas.

    The class conversation went a little like this:

    Teacher – You can’t do that — terribly racist — the whole “lesser-primate” to African-American human being comparison.

    Students – It is not because he is black; it is in reference to the way he hangs on the rim after he dunks. Since we don’t mean it to be racist, it must not be.

    Teacher – When you invoke a classically racist theme it will feel racist to lots and lots of people there (not just the player). And now you know.

    Maybe this is Ms. Sanborn’s class all over again — now more people know. And will be more careful.

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  77. Seconding olderwoman: let’s not confuse “censor” with “censure.”

    @Jeremy has come out against firing anybody over this kerfuffle absent unequivocal proof of intent, and says we should give newspapers latitude about what they publish. Nobody anywhere in this thread had actually called for anybody being fired, nor had anybody called for Big Brother to take up residence at the post. There is perhaps no harm in spontaneously declaring one’s opposition to jackboots, wherever they should call. But it is important that we not let such declarations direct attention away from the real issue.

    The Shakha position, to which I adhere, has two simple parts.

    First: in this case the circumstantial evidence that the post would know how many would interpret the cartoon as racist is *very* strong (and strengthened by an apology that more or less told those offended to toughen up, and hinted that most of them were probably just being instrumental). The “other readings exist” position just doesn’t bear on this argument unless you think that people whose job it is to discern possible readings suck at their jobs.

    Second: Racist speech – – like publishing that cartoon on Page Six – – should be censured. That means the public (somehow defined) declares it a Bad Thing. Institutions guilty of Bad Things lose some of their public credibility, because they have revealed themselves as institutions that do Bad Things.

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  78. jdwblahblah: yes! censure is not censor. That’s what we need to keep saying to people: we are not censoring you when we call your comments/cartoons/t-shirts racist, we are censuring you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people complain that they are being censored because somebody criticized what they said. And to the people who get all offended if somebody suggests that what they said was racist, I feel like saying: “Hey, lighten up, can’t you take a little criticism?” OK, now I am getting hostile. Whoops. Time to move back into peacemaking mode.

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  79. Institutions guilty of Bad Things lose some of their public credibility(@97) The New York Post? Surely you jest. When it comes to the Post, credibility’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.

    (If anyone’s interested, I blogged about the Post as not-a-real-newspaper back in June 2007.)

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  80. @olderwoman: I was seconding you, not contradicting you! I read you to have called for censure not censor, and was trying to elaborate a similar idea. I think that much of the defensiveness of some of the posts has to with having confused them.

    @Jay: if the post has no credibility left to lose, why come up with alternative stories that restore them some credibility.

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  81. Yeah, I’m still with jdw, olderwoman, shaka et al on this. The arguments presented that attempt to explain this away just don’t, in my opinion, hold water. The cartoon wasn’t a quick and accidental utterance, the history of stereotyping Blacks as apes or chimps is too pervasive for me to buy them not knowing it (especially after it kept, very publicly, kept cropping up in the last election,) Obama has always been presented as the bill’s author in the media, and the Post has a vested interest in being shocking (but not so much so that they can’t claim deniability if the heat on them gets too bad.)

    Do I think the cartoonist should be fired? He’s a vile troll, and not particularly funny, but if he is fired he’d probably end up taking all of the blame for what was, certainly, a shared decision on the part of higher-ups at the Post. On the other hand, I’m sure the right wing would welcome him with open arms and find a nice cushy position for him at the National Review, where he could hang out all day with Anne Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Joe the Plumber brainstorming ways to get voters back into the Republican party and America back on track.

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  82. Nobody anywhere in this thread had actually called for anybody being fired

    Good to hear. Shamus linked earlier to the Racism Review blog, which encourages people to sign a petition that says:

    “Join us in demanding that The Post issue an apology for the decision and their callousness, and fire the editor who allowed this cartoon to go to print.”

    I am pleased to know that the participants in this thread disavow that petition.

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  83. So here’s a new question. Or several. Let’s imagine a counter-factual: the chimp was shot last fall, when the bank bailout passed Congress, under GWB’s “leadership.”
    1. Does anybody believe the cartoonist would have drawn the same cartoon about shooting the author of the bank bailout? That is, is it possible to imagine someone getting that cartoon idea without a racial subtext?
    2. Assuming it is possible (after all, bad taste is pretty pervasive), who or what exactly would thought to be shot? (One could ask the same question of the current cartoon, if the claim is that the monkey was not intended to be Obama. But my intent is not to re-open that argument, but to move a different direction.) Would it be the president? Who else might it possibly be?
    3. Who exactly would think it is funny to envision shooting holes in someone as a way of settling a political dispute? Is this a common form of political cartooning? Am I just more sensitive than younger people because I actually lived through a wave of political assassinations and the collective horror they evoked?
    4. Wouldn’t a lot of people be calling for the firing of a newspaper editor that published a cartoon that could plausibly be construed as calling for the assassination of a sitting president even if that president were a White Republican? In fact, wouldn’t you expect a lot of White Republicans to be calling for such firing?

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  84. @106.

    Well, given the chimp shooting in the news, and the former president, as Jeremy linked @1 has frequently been depicted as a chimp, there’s no question in my mind that reasonable people would read such a cartoon without a racial subtext.

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  85. jwdblahblah (@101)asks me,why come up with alternative stories that restore them some credibility? Alas, I have no power to restore credibility to the Post; I doubt that anyone does. It was not the Post’s credibility that concerned me.

    Violet (@102) National Review, where he could hang out all day with Anne Coulter. . . The NR did fire Coulter when, after 9/11 she said that we should “invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.” (Hey, two out of three ain’t bad.)

    ow (@106) cartoon that could plausibly be construed as calling for the assassination of a sitting president No comment. But I think there was a case that actually reached the Supreme Court in the 1980s that went something like this: Shortly after the Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Reagan, a postal worker (in Texas as I recall) commented to a co-worker something like, “I wish he’d had better aim,” or “too bad he didn’t kill him” or words to that effect. A supervisor overheard him, and the guy was fired. I think the Court upheld the firing, and I think Scalia wrote the opinion. I tried Googling it but found nothing. Does anyone remember this?

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  86. @ olderwoman, thanks very much for this new angle. I agree with Corey @ 107, and also with your own expectation that white Republicans would get their knickers into a vengeful bunch over it. So then the question is whether their tetchiness is to be taken seriously as thoughtful political practice, or if instead it’s to be read as low political theater.

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  87. @106:

    3. Who exactly would think it is funny to envision shooting holes in someone as a way of settling a political dispute?

    (waving hand)

    Me! Me! The first thing that came to mind was Nancy Pelosi and, I dunno, John Boehner doing that old “Duck Season! Rabbit Season!” bit, with Ted Nugent standing in for Elmer Fudd:

    “Tax Cuts!”
    “Spending!”
    “Tax Cuts!”
    “Spending!”
    “Tax Cuts”
    “Tax Cuts”
    “Spendi-”
    BLAM

    And then Boehner’s beak spins merrily around before coming to rest backwards.

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  88. @105…actually, I’m perfectly okay with the editor or the cartoonist getting fired. And I’m sure both of them would find a soft landing amongst their fellow co-ideologues on the Right. They might even get to take Coulter’s place at the NR, although they should probably start intensively dieting if they expect to squeeze into any of her skin tight little cocktail frocks. If they really want to take Coulter’s place, they might also want to practice keeping a straight face while advocating that women’s right to vote be taken away.

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  89. holy crap. when the comments start with “@xxx” where x is a three digit number, you know it’s time to close the comments and move on.

    besides, everyone know that the dead monkey represents the music industry and the police represent illegal file traders. and the stimulus bill really means the new U2 album.

    so, what the cartoonist is saying is that music industry is run by people who are dumber than a dead monkey and the new U2 album is a pile of shit.

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  90. so, what the cartoonist is saying is that music industry is run by people who are dumber than a dead monkey and the new U2 album is a pile of shit.

    It’s all so clear to me now! Why didn’t I see this before?!

    By Jove, I think gymdandy has it!

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  91. Rupert Murdoch wrote an apology. See it here. It’s also below.

    As the Chairman of the New York Post, I am ultimately responsible for what is printed in its pages. The buck stops with me.

    Last week, we made a mistake. We ran a cartoon that offended many people. Today I want to personally apologize to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted.

    Over the past couple of days, I have spoken to a number of people and I now better understand the hurt this cartoon has caused. At the same time, I have had conversations with Post editors about the situation and I can assure you – without a doubt – that the only intent of that cartoon was to mock a badly written piece of legislation. It was not meant to be racist, but unfortunately, it was interpreted by many as such.

    We all hold the readers of the New York Post in high regard and I promise you that we will seek to be more attuned to the sensitivities of our community.

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  92. I followed the link Shakha posted to the Post and started reading through the comments. Some were vicious — no surprise there. But a lot of them sounded like, well, us — similar arguments with a similar lack of anyone persuading anyone else, as far as I could tell.
    The level of literacy was also higher than what I expected (there I go, revealing my bigotry about Post readers, but maybe it’s because I was reading the LA Times comments on Chris and Rihanna excerpted at April Winchell’s blog). Does anyone know if the Post edits comments for spelling and grammar?

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  93. I must agree with most of Shaka’s comments, and while some argued that the cartoon makes no explicit comparison, it sure makes an implicit connection to race… see: “Not yet human: Implicit knowledge, historical dehumanization, and contemporary consequences.” Goff, Phillip Atiba; Eberhardt, Jennifer L.; Williams, Melissa J.; Jackson, Matthew Christian
    Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(2), Feb 2008, 292-306.

    Historical representations explicitly depicting Blacks as apelike have largely disappeared in the United States, yet a mental association between Blacks and apes remains. Here, the authors demonstrate that U.S. citizens implicitly associate Blacks and apes. In a series of laboratory studies, the authors reveal how this association influences study participants’ basic cognitive processes and significantly alters their judgments in criminal justice contexts. Specifically, this Black-ape association alters visual perception and attention, and it increases endorsement of violence against Black suspects. In an archival study of actual criminal cases, the authors show that news articles written about Blacks who are convicted of capital crimes are more likely to contain ape-relevant language than news articles written about White convicts. Moreover, those who are implicitly portrayed as more apelike in these articles are more likely to be executed by the state than those who are not. The authors argue that examining the subtle persistence of specific historical representations such as these may not only enhance contemporary research on dehumanization, stereotyping, and implicit processes but also highlight common forms of discrimination that previously have gone unrecognized.

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  94. Whew! When the Tar Heels make 100 points or more at home, fans can buy two Bojangles sausage biscuits for $1.00, a promotion that has the kids in the risers chanting “Bo-Jangles” as the score nears 100. My son is very into it; to my own estimation, this is a case of “first prize, one Bojangles sausage biscuit; second prize, TWO Bojangles sausage biscuits!”. I wonder, though, if Scatterplot could garner a similar promotion for our first 100+ comment thread.

    But I digress. I took on the job of associate chair of my department, which has been something of a bear, and between that and some other administrative work let my attention to Scatterplot slip. And I return to a really interesting, really long, and somewhat circular argument about race in the cartoon. Wish I’d been here all along!

    I think the intent question is really interesting, partially because of its connection with the Thomas theorem, but more because of its connection with the implication of censor/firing/etc. (as in ca. @35ff). As we know of other forms of culture, reception is a creative act, carried out within a cultural and social context. Thus a cartoon is only racist insofar as it evokes racist understandings, which it most certainly did (the very length of this comment list being exhibit A). The cartoonist, editor, publisher, reader, and discusser need not be A Racist ™ in order for the cartoon–a distinct cultural object of its own–to be racist.

    Shouts out to @52 and @55.

    @87.jeremy: parsimony is as parsimony does. For someone who has experience race as a–even the–essential category for a lifetime, it is far more parsimonious to assume racism than to assume none. (In medicine they have an aphorism, “when you hear hoofbeats, look for horses not zebras.” That is, expect common ailments instead of uncommon ones. But this of course assumes an environment where horses are more common than zebras….)

    My verdict: The cartoon is racist. Whether or not its producers etc. are racist is neither discernible nor particularly interesting.

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  95. Yay! A new friend in the sandbox! Hi, Andrew! I agree about the biscuits, but I’d have agreed with your son when I was his age. Live and learn.

    You say: “As we know of other forms of culture, reception is a creative act” in context, etc. You then derive from this that the cartoon IS racist, which does not follow as a general statement. As several of us have been arguing, reception is indeed a creative act. The racism of the cartoon is created in reception. To know if it was racist before that, we have to examine its producers’ intent. However, just as you say, for those creative receivers the cartoon is legitimately and reasonably racist. Other creative receptions are not only possible but empirically true – just as true as the racist ones.

    Therefore, this discussion has been about either enabling or disabling legitimate receptions of the cartoon. Everyone agrees that it’s reasonable to receive the cartoon as racist, so that’s the ONE reception that no one has tried to disable, although there have been plenty of attempts to disable other readings.

    About experiencing racism as a central structuring category, again you’re right. Still, to see experience presented as a guarantor of perceptual accuracy is a little troubling since the problems with this view have been a central issue for the sociology of knowledge for at least a little while. Experience is the great equalizer, because we’ve all got one. But that’s the problem; if we stay on the ground of experience, mine’s just as good as yours. This leaves us with the cartoon is both racist and not, depending on the experience of its producers and receivers.

    The argument here has really boiled down to an attempt to enforce one particular experience of receiving as the definitive one. The presumption is that people who did not receive the cartoon in this way should have, and in principle could learn to. Great! This means we can all learn to see differently, right? So we get to choose how we see; there’s nothing about our experience that forces us into any perception, which means we can tune our perceptions for whatever purposes we may choose.

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  96. @120.Carl: Nice to meet you, Carl!

    I don’t agree that this is about “perceptual accuracy.” Accuracy implies that the meaning of the cartoon inheres in it as an object, and that audiences/consumers of that object interpret that meaning with varying degrees of success. I would argue instead that audiences make meaning but not under conditions of their own choosing. That’s why producer’s intent is irrelevant.

    That does, as you note, leave the question of “an attempt to enforce one particular experience of receiving as the definitive one,” and I confess to a certain Scatterista irony involved in my “it is racist” declaration. But to the extent that we view racism as more about violence and unfairness than other frames for the interpretation of cultural objects, it seems to me like we ought legitimately to privilege the interpretation of the victim more than that of the nonvictim. Hence my claim about parsimony, and my ultimate conclusion that the better — not more accurate, but better — interpretation of the cartoon is that it is racist.

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  97. Thank you Andrew! I appreciate your clarification re: perceptual accuracy and apologize for misreading you on this point.

    Thanks also for the 18th Brumaire plug. It’s both true that we do our interpreting in context and that we don’t choose much about that context. But there’s not one context, there are many, as a function of the diversity of life situations and the stratification of perspectives. I’ve been perplexed by the parts of this discussion that have seemed to assume that everyone is in the same context, so everyone is bound by/to the same interpretive parameters. Histories of which one is not aware are not ‘real’ in the sense of providing meaningful context for the creative acts of particular (groups of) humans.

    As for privileging the victim’s interpretation, that’s very well said. I agree. Except that I think victimhood is a very troubling identity construct in our current environment, and in many ways an actively disabling one. So when I say it’s available to us to interpret the cartoon in non-racist ways, I’m making both an epistemological and an activist point: we need not interpret ourselves into victimhood. If we must go there, let’s save it for more substantive harms, of which there are many after all.

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  98. @119/@121:

    For someone who has experience race as a–even the–essential category for a lifetime, it is far more parsimonious to assume racism than to assume none.

    plus

    it seems to me like we ought legitimately to privilege the interpretation of the victim more than that of the nonvictim

    Again, I recognize fully that I occupy a minority position among (Scatterplot-vocal?) sociologists in this respect, but I am very uncomfortable with the moral analytic that emerges from putting those two points together.

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  99. Jeremy, thoughts on the alternative moral analytic(s)? I ask because if you buy the claim that the object/text can be racist even if its producer’s intent is not overtly so, we are left without a clear mode for judging what Carl refers to as “accuracy.” Absent that judgment, it seems to me that a standard that privileges systematic disadvantage over time — both in terms of recognition and redistribution (what Carl calls “substantive”) — is a reasonable approach.

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  100. In Language in Thought and Action, Hayakawa tells a story related to him by a black friend, “a distinguished sociologist.” When he was a teenager in the 1930s, he (the black guy) was hitchhiking in the South and got picked up by a white couple. They were very nice to him – fed him, gave him a place to sleep in their house – but they constantly referred to him as a “nigger,” maybe even “the little nigger.” He didn’t know what to do, but decided he had to do something. So finally he told them how grateful he was for their hospitality and for being genuinely nice, but there was just one thing, “Could you please not use that insulting word?” The white man asked him what he meant.
    “I mean your calling me ‘nigger.’”
    “Well what’s insultin about that? You’re a nigger, ain’t you?”
    The sociologist telling Hayakawa the story years later concludes, “I couldn’t think of an answer then, and I’m not sure I can now.”

    (This is what I can piece together from memory – I read the book a long, long, time ago – and the bits that turn up on Google books from the 1964 edition. In a later edition that is more accessible on Google books, Hayakawa took the story in a different direction.)

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  101. @124 – That’s a great and complicated question. And I have been pondering the answer, and started to type a little, and then the tradeoff between this thread and all these different work things came more and more plain and I just had to say “Jeremy, stop!” But, yes, great and constructive question.

    @125 –

    How about we say “n-word” so we can avoid another 100-comment thread on the propriety of its use in quoted speech, as obviously people have vastly different opinions on that?

    But I’m not sure I get the point of the story. Or, at least, it seems like there would, if we fast-forwarded the anecdote to the present, be a pretty obvious retort one could provide if one really did believe the couple was fully-well-intentioned and just culturally oblivious, and that if the couple really were so fully-well-intentioned they would thereupon stop using the word. Plus, I can see the position where being something like a cartoonist or newspaper editor puts one in more of a position of responsibility to be cognizant of cultural understandings.

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  102. It funny. And I’m very troubled by the moral implications putting these together:

    – We can’t know people’s intentions

    – Racism is created by our interpretation

    – Victimhood is a an identity construct

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  103. Jeremy (@126)’ “But I’m not sure I get the point of the story [@125].”

    It was in response to Andrew’s statement (@124) that “if you buy the claim that the object/text can be racist even if its producer’s intent is not overtly so, we are left without a clear mode for judging what Carl refers to as “accuracy.”” The “text” –in this case the n-word (more on that later)– was racist or insulting to the black kid and certainly to us 70 years later. But it’s also clear that the speaker did not intend to be racist or insulting. I’m not sure how “accuracy” figures in this context.

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  104. Jeremy (@125): “How about we say “n-word” so we can avoid another 100-comment thread on the propriety of its use in quoted speech, as obviously people have vastly different opinions on that?”

    If someone who has the power wants to remove my comment below to a new thread, please do so. Or, we could shoot for 200.

    *********

    There’s a difference between using a word and talking about a word. If we can’t talk about a word, if we think that the word itself is so powerful that we cannot utter it even to talk about it, then G-d help us (as the orthodox might put it). I will await the return of George Carlin to tell us about the seven words you can’t say on Scatterplot.

    It wasn’t Carlin but some other comedian who challenged this kind of timidity regarding the word in question. “N-word, n-word, n-word, n-word,” he would repeat. I can’t remember who it was – maybe Richard Pryor on his album “This N-word’s Crazy.” I’m pretty sure it’s not Chris Rock from his routine “I Hate N-words.” It might even have been Lenny Bruce. But whoever it was, I think his point was the same as mine: that calling someone a name and talking about the name are not the same.

    Hey, when it comes to race, I’m as politically correct as the next guy. (Well, maybe not the next guy, but the one after him, or maybe two or three down the line.) I’ve got my FUCK RACISM poster prominently displayed on my office wall. But if we’re talking about a word, I’d like to be able to say the word we’re talking about. The linguists at Language Log observe no such taboos. When they talk about the use of the word fuck, they say fuck. And I don’t think they are any less liberal or less sensitive than us (or is it “than we”?).

    And speaking of language, I still have not had a single answer (now posted on two blogs) to the question I asked (@43 working from something Carl said @9): Would those who are so certain that the cartoon is racist be similarly certain if the idea in the cartoon were stated in prose? (“The stimulus bill is so bad it could have been written by that deranged chimp in Connecticut that the cops shot.”) Maybe that’s another separate thread?

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  105. I’m with Foucault on repressing things (like sex and words). It just embeds them deeper and turns them into sites of generalized repression. I ask my students if anyone doesn’t know what I mean when I say f-bomb. Doesn’t that big shiny marquee with *FUCK* in big glaring letters go off in your head? And a pang of anxiety and guilt and eagerness to please because you knew what I was talking about? But of course this makes the argument that it would be more therapeutic and kind to do away with the word entirely. As if the real social relation it represents won’t cough up a new or repurposed word for it right quick.

    There’s a sexist way to say ‘woman’, and a racist way to say ‘Black’, and a homophobic way to say ‘gay’. You can’t stay ahead of bigotry by confronting its symbolizations, they will always confound you by twisting (“that’s not what I meant”) or moving on, like the itch that won’t stay scratched. There’s also an unracist way to say ‘nigger’, as Hayakawa’s story shows. In fact, you’d first have to teach that couple to mean the word in a racist way before then choosing not to use it, which is a little sad in my view, but expedient.

    Btw: I’d prefer not to be the poster child for ‘accuracy’ since my sin was not thinking it exists as an objective possibility, but mistakenly thinking Andrew thinks it so exists. I mean, I can take it, but I’m just sayin’ we agree here.

    Btw2: I’m fascinated and baffled by the subtext that there’s something fearsome about a long comment thread. Isn’t that a sign of blogtastic finery, when you actually hit upon something interesting enough to talk about that people want to stay up late talking about it? I realize all the comments aren’t gems, my bad, but there’s a lot of meat left on this bone.

    Btw3: Good luck with that question, Jay. I suspect the people you’d like an answer from think the answer is self-evident or that it’s been answered by a point shakha has made several times, e.g. @55: “the basic currency of cartoonists is symbolism and representation. Their entire trade is based on the idea that images can “stand in” for things.” Your question removes the cartoon from the symbolic to the literal, so of course it cleans out the racism subtext. But the whole point is that the racism is in the symbolic subtext. Perhaps you could refine your question to get around this response?

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