Update: The evening after this piece was written, the New York Post issued what could best be called a defiant apology:
But it has been taken as something else – as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism. This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologize.
However, there are some in the media and in public life who have had differences with The Post in the past – and they see the incident as an opportunity for payback.
To them, no apology is due.
It goes to show that in some small way it is a new day in America. When the black man you insult is the President of the United States, an apology, however begrudgingly, will be made.
Within minutes of Barack Obama’s inauguration, nix that, Barack Obama’s election, there were whites and blacks alike who declared the United States post-racial. I knew better and two events this week have confirmed my opinion.
Yesterday, speaking to the Justice Department about Black History Month, Attorney General Eric Holder said,
One cannot truly understand America without understanding the historical experience of black people in this nation. Simply put, to get to the heart of this country one must examine its racial soul.
Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.
As a nation we have done a pretty good job in melding the races in the workplace. We work with one another, lunch together and, when the event is at the workplace during work hours or shortly thereafter, we socialize with one another fairly well, irrespective of race. And yet even this interaction operates within certain limitations. We know, by “American instinct” and by learned behavior, that certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks, at best embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character.
And outside the workplace the situation is even more bleak in that there is almost no significant interaction between us. On Saturdays and Sundays America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some 50 years ago.
This is truly sad. Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle, it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated.
The host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”, Joe Scarborough said he was “flummoxed” by these comments. How could the Attorney General of the United States say such things when he is the first black to hold this position and he was appointed by the first black US President? Joe was beside himself. Haven’t we made progress? Pat Buchanan then piped in that self-segregation is part of social freedom.
What does having a black President and Attorney General have to do with racial conditions within neighborhoods across this country? Is it progress that enough white people were willing to vote for a black man that he could become President? Certainly. Does it solve all of our racial problems? Certainly not. Buchanan’s comment as an excuse for segregation is nothing new and does nothing to advance race relations. People self-segregate as much out of fear of “other” as it is comfort among their own kind. The fact that many whites and blacks spend time together when “they have to” in the office or business-related social events, but don’t during their free time indicates that we truly have not come to accept one another. It comes down to the phenomenon of the black or white liking the guy that works in the adjacent office but wouldn’t be caught dead having the guy date his daughter.
The other reminder that we are not yet post-racial came in the form of a tasteless cartoon on the editorial page of the New York Post yesterday. The cartoon combined the two totally unrelated events of a chimp being killed by police in Stamford, CT with the signing of the stimulus bill. The cartoon shows two police officers looking down on the wounded dying chimp whom one of them has just shot. The one cop says to the other one holding a freshly fired gun, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” Who is the stimulus bill most associated with? Barack Obama. What animal have blacks in this country been caricatured as for centuries? Apes. The editorial staff and the cartoon’s author, Sean Delonas deny any implication that the chimp was supposed to represent Obama. Rather than issue an apology they chose to attack their critics, in particular saying that Reverend Al Sharpton’s public complaint was just a grab at attention.
Even if we give the cartoonist and his paper the benefit of the doubt that the chimp represented Nancy Pelosi, or Congress, or as one apologist said, “any ape could have written the first stimulus package”, the incident makes clear that our racial wounds are still fresh. The incident confirms Eric Holder’s assessment that even the suggestion of outrage at a perceived racial slight brings judgement upon the wounded party, not the offender. “We know, by “American instinct” and by learned behavior, that certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks, at best embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character.” Such was the case with Sharpton. Why make a mountain out of a molehill? Our President is black, we’re post-racial so surely the New York Post could not have made a racial faux pas. We’re past that. Aren’t we?
No we’re not. A black President, a black Attorney General and forty acres and a mule for that matter aren’t going to fool blacks into thinking that everything is just peachy. There is still lots of work to be done and Holder is right in saying that the only way we can do the work is by talking to each other with compassion and empathy.