A while ago Rush Limbaugh’s show created a bit of a stir when a caller compared Obama to Curious George. This was regarded as some as racist because such comparisons have long been part of the vocabulary of racism.
The most recent flap involves a cartoon in the New York Post. This cartoon shows the body of a bullet ridden chimpanzee and two police officers. One officer says, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” Some people have taken the chimpanzee in the cartoon as being Obama and have concluded that the cartoon is thus racist.
The charge of racism has been countered by the response that Obama did not write the stimulus bill. As such, the argument goes, it cannot be a racist attack on Obama. Rather, one might say, it is a hackneyed use of a monkey comparison to express the view that something is a stupid idea. Of course, the cartoonist might have intended it to be a shot at Obama and merely been unaware that Obama did not write it. Or perhaps he was aware of this and simply wrote the cartoon that way anyway.
Determining whether it is racist or not obviously requires determining whether the chimpanzee in the cartoon is supposed to be Obama or not. Even if the chimpanzee is supposed to be Obama, there is still the question of whether the cartoonist intended to be a racist comparison or not. If the cartoonist used the chimpanzee because Obama is black, then that would seem to indicate racism. If he merely used the chimpanzee as a hackneyed symbol of a bad idea or a foolish mistake, then this need not be racist. Unless, of course, it can be argued that any comparison between a black person and a primate must automatically be racist.
It might be claimed that the author’s intent is not important. Rather, the fact that the image is perceived as racist makes it racist. On one hand, this has some plausibility. To use an analogy, suppose I, without any intent to insult someone, say something that she takes as an insult. Since she was insulted, one might reason, my remark was insulting.
While it is appealing to believe that an insult is in the eye of the insulted, intent still seems to matter. For example, if I honestly say to someone “you ran well in the race today” and she takes it as an insult because she thinks I am being sarcastic, then she is making an error. Even though she feels insulted, that is her mistake and hence not a wrongful action on my part. Likewise, if the cartoonist had no intention of making a racist statement, then even if people think it is racist, then they are in error.
It might be further argued that certain things (such as monkey comparisons) are intrinsically racist so that intent is irrelevant in regards to whether the thing is racist or not. For example, if someone call me a “honkey” because they are unaware that it is a racist expression, then they might not be a racist but the term is still racist. This does raise interesting questions about whether terms, images and such can have inherent racist properties. The most plausible view is that they can have extremely strong racist associations such that their use is always tainted with racism. In the case of the chimpanzee cartoon, the use of such an image in a way that it might possibly be associated with Obama could be seen as sufficient to make the cartoon racist-even if the cartoonist had no such intent.