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NY Post's Racist Ape Cartoon Is No Small Matter

Persistent simian stereotypes tagged to blacks have deep associations with support for racist violence argues a psychology professor.
 
 
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Persistent simian stereotypes tagged to blacks are not mere small and unimportant post-racial leftovers of the bad old days, argues a UCLA psychology professor.

I cannot imagine that 10 minutes passed from the time it first appeared online to the time my phone rang early this morning. The New York Post had published a (now controversial) cartoon depicting two police officers that had shot a monkey — one of them quipping, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."

The cartoon — you see it here — was clearly referencing the recent odd-ball news item, that a woman from Stamford, Conn., had been mauled by her pet chimpanzee and that the animal had to be "put down," as it were, to preserve public safety. But the political commentary seemed an odd juxtaposition to the visual. Could the cartoon have been suggesting that Barack Obama, principal champion of the bill and our first black president, was somehow chimp-like?

Though much of the reaction to the cartoon has been outrage at the implication that our 44th president is remotely simian, there have been other messages in the blogosphere as well. A few pleaded with us to see reason in this post-Obama era. They begged us to understand that the cartoonist clearly meant to impugn congress, Wall Street executives and academic economists and that there was no racial subtext to the piece. Others saw the cartoon as racist but declined to become outraged. Saw the injustice in the image, but saw it as a minor injustice, not one worth worrying too much about. After all, having a black president means that America is post-racial and does not need to worry about petty things like harmless pictures in a paper.

The messages in my inbox mirrored the commentaries I saw online. A few (though not many) defending the cartoon. Many more exasperated with indifference. All of them insisted this was a little thing.

The best science available suggests otherwise.

For the better part of the past seven years, my colleagues and I have conducted research on the psychological phenomenon of dehumanization. Specifically, we have examined cognitive associations between African Americans and non-human apes. And the association leads to bad things. When we began the research, we were skeptical of whether or not participants even knew that people of African descent were caricatured as ape-like — as less than human — throughout the better part of the past 400 years. And, in fact, many were not. However, even those who were unaware of this historical association demonstrated a cognitive association between blacks and apes. That is, when they thought of apes, they thought of blacks and vice versa — when they thought of blacks, they thought of apes.

But the fact of this cognitive association was not the most disturbing part of the research. Rather, it was the fact that the association between blacks and apes could lead to violence.

In one study, participants who were made to think about apes were more likely to support police violence against black (but not white) criminal suspects. The association actually caused them to endorse anti-black violence. Most disturbing of all, however, was a study of media coverage and the death penalty. Looking at a sample of death-eligible cases in Philadelphia from 1979 to 1999, the more that media coverage used ape-like metaphors to describe a murder trial (i.e. "urban jungle," "aping the suspects behavior," etc.) the more likely black suspects, but not white suspects were to be put to death.

Not surprisingly, black suspects were much more likely to be described in ape-like terms. And they were more frequently executed by the state.

 
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