[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/US/02/19/chimp.cartoon.react/art.cartoon.nypost.jpg caption="A New York Post cartoon has sparked a debate over race and cartooning this week."]
Co-founder Jack and Jill Politics
I loved last year's New Yorker cover depicting the Obamas as radical black terrorists. It was an over-the-top caricature of the stereotypes hurled at the then presidential candidate and potential First Lady. And while it wasn't laugh out loud funny, it was satire. As a writer and comedian, my first reaction is almost always to try to understand, and possibly defend, the artist. I think society needs us to push the envelope and provoke.
But despite this predisposition, even I was taken aback by the New York Post cartoon depicting two police officers standing over a bloodied body of a chimpanzee saying, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill." As others, I interpreted the chimp as a reference to President Obama, especially given past illustration of him as a monkey , and his key role in championing and signing the Recovery Act.
I was even more concerned about the impact of the cartoon when I learned that recent studies reveal this imagery has real life consequences.
Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff , is a friend of mine from Harvard, who is an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA currently on leave at the Russell Sage Foundation . He is applying his research on the psychological effects of dehumanization to the problem of police discrimination and brutality. What his research has found is that imagery equating African-Americans with apes, chimpanzees, monkeys and other simians can lead to increased levels of real violence against black people, especially at the hands of the state.
This isn't my opinion; this is science talking.
Here is what he said in a recently published article:
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.
So while I'm neither concerned about what happens to the New York Post's advertising revenues, nor worried about President Obama's feelings or safety, what I am concerned about is the real world harm imagery like this does to the remaining millions of African-Americans in this country who aren't president. Sparking a conversation about the real-world racial disparities that remain is something positive I hope will emerge from incidents like these.
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