February 25, 2009 in Opinion

Leonard Pitts Jr.: Wrong words speak volumes

Leonard Pitts Jr.
 

“Police and deputy sheriffs hunted Wednesday night for a negro ‘beast man.’ ” – Billings Gazette, Sept. 19, 1929

“An original Guinea negro whose blood has not been crossed is as docile as a shepherd dog.” – Atlanta Constitution, June 4, 1899

“Miss Mary Henderson The Victim of a Negro Beast” – Moberly Weekly Monitor, Aug. 29, 1901

“For two minutes Joe Louis was a throwback to a wild jungle creature.” – Associated Press, Jan. 14, 1940

“Towering above them all, his black apelike face, distorted with rage.” – Oelwein Daily Register, April 24, 1919

“Northerners cannot realize how low in intelligence, how irresponsible the pure negro is. He is an animal.” – New York Times, June 9, 1901

Just so we’re all clear on why black folk tend to get annoyed when newspapers compare them to animals.

For all that, though, it was not the New York Post’s now-notorious chimp cartoon that offended me. Rather, it was everything that came after.

Last week’s cartoon, referencing a recent incident in which police killed a chimpanzee that mauled a woman in Stamford, Conn., depicts two officers standing over the bullet-riddled body of a dead ape. One says to the other: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”

Some observers were outraged, believing that cartoonist Sean Delonas had likened President Barack Obama to a chimp. I thought it equally likely he meant to taunt congressional Democrats (the president, after all, did not “write” the stimulus bill) and had inadvertently blundered into an awful racial stereotype. Given that ambiguity, my instinct was to give Delonas the benefit of the doubt.

Then he opened his mouth.

He and his bosses, actually. First, there was the strident defense: “absolutely friggin’ ridiculous,” said the cartoonist in a statement to CNN. Later, with protesters ringing its building, and finding itself questioned and criticized by everyone from the National Association of Black Journalists to New York Gov. David Paterson to the NAACP, the paper issued a grudging, churlish apology in which, even while expressing regret, it tried to blame the controversy on “opportunists” to whom “no apology is due.”

It took nearly a week before it dawned on the paper’s brain trust that maybe people had good reason for their vexation. Tuesday, media baron Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Post, issued a new apology, no strings attached.

That it took so long to do the obvious speaks volumes.

Let’s be clear on one thing: The Post has a right to provoke and even offend. That is absolute and sacrosanct. But it is difficult not to be troubled by a suffocating cluelessness that allows it to provoke and offend without knowing it or meaning it or even, apparently, caring about it – and then, to dismiss provocation and offense as the work of “opportunists” instead of seeking to understand why people were so upset.

The paper’s attitude and its evident ignorance of historical context are not unique. Rather, they have their echo in too many white Americans whose default defense is the proverbial good offense whenever they feel cornered on the subject of race.

And yes, that attitude is fed by the fact that in recent years too many African-Americans have found it convenient to cry wolf where race is concerned. But if arrogance on the one end and disingenuousness on the other are our only alternatives, we’re in trouble.

Fittingly, this all unfolds in the wake of Attorney General Eric Holder’s contention that we need to become better and braver in talking about race. Take the Post’s self-satisfied ignorance as Exhibit A.

The paper didn’t know that it didn’t know. One hopes the next time controversy comes calling it will, before deploying its defenses, do what it should have done here.

Shut up and listen.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is lpitts@miamiherald.com.


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