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?