Civil Liberties

Are Americans 'Cowards' About Race? Anti-NY Post Protesters Speak Out

As Eric Holder calls for "frank conversations" on race in the U.S., the NY Post cartoon controversy reveals how far we have to go.

Thursday's lunch hour rally in midtown Manhattan to protest the New York Post's racist cartoon brought hundreds of vocal protesters of every age and race to 1211 6th Avenue, home to Rupert Murdoch's towering News Corporation building, which houses the Post as well as FOX News. Confined to a small barricaded area, with NYPD standing by, the rally, which was organized and led by Rev. Al Sharpton, clogged the sidewalks with media and onlookers. Protesters shouted "Shut down the Post! as some drivers honked their horns in support. Others heckled the protesters; one truck driver shouted, "Get a job!"

Meanwhile in the news, the incendiary cartoon continued to dominate headlines, at the same time as Attorney General Eric Holder's stinging words about our country's inability to talk about race. "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot," Holder said in a speech before Justice Department employees on Wednesday, "in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards."

"If we are to make progress in this area," he said, "we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us."

Holder's words were spoken as part of a Black History Month address, and his inspiration was apparently then-candidate Barack Obama's heralded speech about race during the Democratic primaries last year. But they could have easily applied to the vast gulf of understanding between those people who have defended the Post's cartoon (or else accused "liberals" of overreacting) and those who joined the rally, if not in person, then in spirit.

"These are things that have been ignored. We haven't had a voice."

One African American woman named Dorothy who heard about the protest via New York's WBLS, an R&B and Soul station, stood a few feet away from the rally as it grew in size, occasionally joining in the chants. "I'm not angry," she said, "I'm hurt." When she saw the Post cartoon, she said, "I had tears, literally, running down my face."

"You have Obama's attorney general saying we're a nation of 'cowards' -- well, yes we are," she said. "These are things that have been ignored. We haven't had a voice."

"We the people put a black man in office," she said. "We put him in the White House. You don't see a noose around Bush's neck."

Some have argued that Bush was routinely derided and disrespected throughout his presidency, having been compared to a monkey numerous times. "Perhaps [cartoonist Sean Delonas] could show how the left repeatedly compared President Bush to a chimpanzee since Sharpton thinks Sean is comparing the dead chimpanzee to President Obama," one commenter wrote in response to an article on the website of the Chicago Tribune. Elsewhere on the web -- and across the political spectrum -- people sought to protray the whole thing as a misunderstanding. "Al Sharpton is very offended," joked one blogger on MotherJones.com. "But he shouldn't be because the cartoon isn't offensive, unless you're an ape."

" … The truth is, it's not a good cartoon. Because it is an awkward attempt to combine two unrelated news stories, it doesn't resonate … You many not even get the cartoon at all (stimulus=monkey?), but that's understandable because it's not that funny; it's just not racist either. Sometimes a joke about monkeys is, well, just a joke about monkeys."

Putting aside the irritatingly glib the-only-crime-is-a-failure-to-be-funny refrain that is so common when discussing race-baiting editorial cartoons, given the number of times monkeys appeared during the presidential campaign in reference to Barack Obama, it seems willfully ignorant and disingenuous to shrug off this cartoon as "just a joke about monkeys."

As psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff wrote on Wednesday, the Post cartoon "is not far removed from the 'Curious George' Obama sock puppet, a 'Curious George' Obama T-shirt, a Japanese advertisement depicting Obama as a monkey, and countless other Obama/monkey comparisons that cropped up throughout the year-long Democratic primary and presidential campaigns. Psychological science has long known that words and pictures, far from harmless, can be the very instruments of dehumanization necessary for collective violence-regardless of how innocently they are intended."

A History of Violence

Indeed, it is the violence of the cartoon, even more than the chimpanzee image that many people found disturbing enough to warrant protest. At the rally, one large sign read:

RACIST NEW YORK POST CHOOSES BLACK HISTORY MONTH TO INSULT PRES. OBAMA THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN PRESIDENT

THE NY POST IS ENCOURAGING LUNATICS TO ASSASSINATE PRESIDENT OBAMA

BOYCOTT THE NY POST AND ITS SPONSORS

In many ways, the sign cut to the heart of the matter. The possibility that white America would sooner see Barack Obama assassinated than allow a black man to reach the White House was a very real fear throughout the presidential campaign. And with good reason. One African American protester named Maggie has lived in New York since 1965 but grew up in Selma, Alabama. She compared the New York Post's cartoon to racist attacks on Martin Luther King Jr -- attacks that live in her memory. "They make racist statements to denigrate people of color," she said. "They see someone [of color] succeed and they try to bring him down."

Maggie said it didn't come as any shock that the Post would run such a cartoon after the election of Barack Obama. "I wasn't surprised," she said, "I am used to seeing that."

So, too, are New Yorkers used to seeing protests over the actual shooting by police officers of African American men -- protests often led by Rev. Sharpton. "People knock Al Sharpton hard," Dorothy said. "But you know he's the only black activist taking this on."

As the protest wound down, an older man named Joe, who lives in a homeless shelter downtown and who heard about the rally from Pacifica station WBAI, commented on the good turnout. "Not bad for 24 hour notice," he said, then shook his head. "Here we are, in 2008 -- and we're still seeing this crazy shit."

Go here to see photographs from yesterday's protest.