While a black man ascending into the office of President indicates measured progress for race relations, it does not automatically mean that issues of race and racism are no longer relevant or worth discussing. Isolated incidents of achievement are not always indicative of widespread societal progress. One only needs to turn back the clock a mere three and a half years and remember the scenes that played out in New Orleans duirng Hurricane Katrina for a reminder of why race issues should continue to be discussed in the twenty-first century.
Attorney General Eric Holder recently gave a speech in honor of Black History Month and used the opportunity to encourage people to have an open dialogue about race. Holder said that we are "essentially a nation of cowards" in our collective failure of engaging in meaningful discussions on race related issues. Holder continued:
Our history has demonstrated that the vast majority of Americans are uncomfortable with, and would like to not have to deal with, racial matters and that is why those, black or white, elected or self-appointed, who promise relief in easy, quick solutions, no matter how divisive, are embraced. We are then free to retreat to our race protected cocoons where much is comfortable and where progress is not really made. If we allow this attitude to persist in the face of the most significant demographic changes that this nation has ever confronted-and remember, there will be no majority race in America in about fifty years-the coming diversity that could be such a powerful, positive force will, instead, become a reason for stagnation and polarization.
With President Obama now in office we see people retreating into their "race protected cocoons". Racial disparity and racial inequality have not just magically disappeared, but rather it is the chance for meaningful discourse which has fallen into old patterns and continues to fade into the background. What a fantastic opportunity this country currently has to speak to each other about issues of race now that we have witnessed the election of our first black President. What follows should not be the assumption that all has been overcome, but rather a dialogue on how we can continue to move forward. Communication and emerging from our protected cocoons is the only way that we can effectively continue this all important progression on these issues.
Recently, the much publicized editorial cartoon printed by The New York Post, touched off a firestorm of criticism. The cartoon (linked to above) shows two white police officers standing over a bullet-ridden and bloodied chimp with their guns smoking. One officer is saying to the other: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill". Rev. Al Sharpton was quick to criticize the cartoon as racist for the implication that the dead chimpanzee could be interpreted to be President Obama. The Post initially issued a statement defending the cartoon and attacking "those in the media and in public life who have had differences with the Post in the past". "To them," the statement read, "no apology is due." This led to continued demonstrations outside the Post's offices and concluded with an apology from Rupert Murdoch, CEO of NewsCorp.
This incident got a lot of sensational coverage in the media and set off debates between pundits who argued whether or not the cartoon was racist. Whether the chimpanzee was initially intended to represent Obama is not necessarily the central issue. A more productive discussion would have stretched beyond the surface and could have examined the history of likening African-Americans to monkeys and chimpanzees. Now, with Murdoch's apology and the sensational aspect of this story fading, we will once again shelve the discussion of this issue until the next controversy erupts. This pattern, one we have seen for years on the issue of race, is not a recipe for progress, but like Eric Holder says, a reason for stagnation.
While the recent controversy over the Post's editorial cartoon shows us an example of the continued failure of discussing race in a meaningful way, there are still some who feel that it is appropriate to engage in behavior that directly works against progress. Jim Schifrin is the publisher of The Whistleblower (an internet based alternative "news" source for Cincinnati) and has come under fire recently for blatantly racist language and images as well as assassination jokes that he has posted. As you can read in other stories posted at The Cincinnati Beacon, many area politicians have repudiated this racist language.
In the January 17th edition of The Whistleblower Schifrin made mention of sharing Obama jokes with Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters:
Q: What do Abe Lincoln, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. and Obama have in common? A: Nothing, yet!
Q: What's the difference between Sarah Palin naked and Michelle Obama naked?
A: Playboy and National Geographic!
BREAKING NEWS: “Hail to the Chief” is being replaced with the theme song from "The Jefferson's"!
Finally, everybody—just relax. When was the last time you saw an black guy keep
a job for four years?
In the February 20th edition of The Whistleblower Schifrin has Obama's face pasted over the face of a monkey and also published this result of a "limerick competition":
The best part of dead Presidents' Day
Is that at some point this one will also be that way.
I don't wish him bad luck
(Though I really don't give a good ... uh ... "darn")
Just call me a nasty old Republican ofay!
and in the February 21st edition of The Whistleblower, Schifrin posted a photo that likens Michelle Obama to a monkey. It is racist actions like these that run directly contrary to the kind of progress that Eric Holder talks about in his speech. There is nothing about the publication of such images and so-called jokes that allow us to have an intelligent and productive conversation about serious race related issues. The fact that there are still Jim Schifrin's of the world out there should indicate not only that racism is still alive and well, but that we need to take every opportunity that we are given to have intellectual discussions that will actual move this country forward instead of backward. After all, as Eric Holder said:
As I indicated before, the artificial device that is Black History month is a perfect vehicle for the beginnings of such a dialogue. And so I urge all of you to use the opportunity of this month to talk with your friends and co-workers on the other side of the divide about racial matters. In this way we can hasten the day when we truly become one America.
Perhaps Jim Schifrin would like to take Eric Holder's challenge and discuss (in interview format) his use of assassination jokes, racist jokes, and likening monkeys to the Obamas. (If he is interested in such an interview, he should let me know.) After all, lobbing racist insults is an easy thing to do, but tackling these issues in a meaningful manner is another matter entirely.
Though we have made great strides with race, it is evident by the examples that I have listed above, that we still have a long way to come. As Eric Holder states in his speech, "to respect one another, we must have a basic understanding of each other" . Communication and dialogue is the only way that we can begin to understand each other and understand the full history of black America. "The history of black America and the history of this nation are inextricably tied to each other", Holder states, and until we start to talk with each other and understand this, we will see more stagnation and less progression.
This article can also be found at: http://www.cincinnatibeacon.com/