Upon discovering that my description of the lips of President George W. Bush's as "simian" meant "ape-like," a former New York mayor fired off a letter to the editor demanding my head.
"What if a Newsday columnist had referred to the lips of the Revs. Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson in that way," Ed Koch wrote in February 2005. "There would have been a flood of complaints, pickets...cancellations of subscriptions. Rightly so."
Faced with another example of Mayor Koch's bad judgment, I wrote a second column back then explaining racial stereotypes to him and others. A "simian" reference to Jackson and Sharpton, I agreed, may well constitute a provocation. However, this same word applied to a white, Anglo-Saxon male such as then-President Bush is not a racial stereotype but a simple adjective. It would be as if the ears of President Obama, say, were described as "owlish," or even "elephantine."
With tempers still heated over the recent New York Post cartoon , and black leaders petitioning against the FCC exemption of press baron Rupert Murdoch, my primer on such offenses might shed some light. Letters to newspaper editors (one in Newsday today) continue to question why it's OK for websites to refer to Bush as a chimp, as several did, but injudicious to do so to President Obama.
As for the Post cartoon, reasonable observers across the spectrum have concluded that the chimp described as the "someone" who wrote the stimulus package targets President Barack Obama, at the exclusion of all others. Almost every African-American we've heard from felt insulted, if not sickened, by the image, and none, as Post editors suggested early on, waited for a signal from Sharpton.
It is instead the habit of this media-savvy protest impresario to pick up the rage of his community and take it to the streets. That's what activists do. Sharpton has the unfortunate history of playing off those he defends against those he attacks--often to his advantage, sometimes for a fee. As a result, the big-voice preacher tends to discredit causes he takes up, even as his marches highlight genuine abuses that might otherwise get downplayed.
"Shame on you for dodging the real issue," said  singer John Legend in a letter to the editor describing the Post cartoon as "blatantly racist and offensive.... This is not about Rev. Sharpton."
What then is the root of the offending Post cartoon?
A negative stereotype is an exaggerated belief associated with a targeted people--and is used to describe individual members. Over time, this association passes into popular usage. It is most effective when used by the dominant group of a society that enjoys a power advantage over an underclass. Words tend to reinforce--and justify--the deprivation of certain rights and privileges.
Stereotypes are the stock in trade of the editorial cartoonist who has a license to traffic in abuse, especially of sitting politicians. However, the drawing that Sean Delonas slipped past his Post editors committed the double-barrel violation of not only depicting an African-American as a chimpanzee but also getting him shot dead on the streets by white cops.
The "stimulus" chimp exploits a pernicious stereotype that whites of Europe and North America have long used to demean those of African descent. The exaggerated characteristics unduly projected onto blacks associated with the caricature are physical as well as mental. (Don Imus's radio shock troupe used to refer to a certain black NBA star as a "knuckle-dragging missing link.")
Animals have been used to stereotypes people down through the ages. Starting in the eighteenth century, the British disparaged the French, as well as the Dutch, as "frogs." The Nazis and others used images of rats to dehumanize Jews, just as donkeys have been associated with Arabs. In early American journals, the Irish were caricatured, along with blacks, as ape-like.
Unlike the caricature of Obama, some negative stereotypes are partly true (herein springs the exaggeration). Thus one group may be portrayed as being stingy, clannish and given to sharp business practices. Another may be slandered as violence-prone, lazy and not-so-smart. Transpose the sets of stereotypes between the two groups and you elicit confusion, if not outright laughter.
The potency of stereotypes is maintained in popular usage to the extent that members of targeted groups are kept out of the media inner sanctums where such nasty images are perpetuated. A black editor would likely have noticed the high toxicity of the Post cartoon; instead, the Australian-dominated system allowed the artist to compound the racial insult.
In addition to stereotyping the African-American president as a chimpanzee, the provocative Delonas also toyed with the troubling pattern of cops shooting black men dead on the streets of New York and elsewhere. Here, more than a few saw editor Col Allan treading on terrain not unfamiliar to the New York Post.
Many black New Yorkers have been saying for years that, within the pages of the Post, humiliating blacks is business as usual.