Leader’s Message – “It’s Just Not Funny!” – April 2009

“Cops don’t check my bank account when they pull me over and make me spread-eagle against the car.  These miseducated brothers, like that sociologist at the University of Chicago, talking about ‘the declining significance of race.’  Now, what country is he living in?”

Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. to Barack Obama in Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance


“They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”

Caption to a political cartoon by Sean Delonas depicting two police officers standing over the body of a bullet-ridden chimpanzee, NY Post, 2/18/09


* * * * *

I value our right to free speech.  I also value my right to choose what I read, and I choose not to read the NY Post.  Their coverage of the Son of Sam murders decades ago was so exploitative that I wrote to the editor letting him know that I would never waste another cent on his publication.  So I missed the initial furor over its controversial cartoon.  When I finally saw it, it struck me as simply inane: Why conflate the killing of a rampaging chimpanzee in Connecticut with the economy?  But that’s because I’m white.


In the small upstate NY town where I grew up, a “mixed marriage” was between a Protestant and a Catholic.  There were no Jews, no Blacks, no “aliens” for miles around.  Arriving at the Rochester airport one summer for a visit, my young son, who grew up in Brooklyn, looked around and asked, “Mommy, where are all the other people?” 


The land south of Lake Ontario was fertile and the climate ideal for orchards, so at harvest time migrants, mostly African-Americans, would move into humble shacks to pick the fruit.  One boy named Terry, whose parents worked on a farm in town, joined my third grade class.  We loved everything about him – his skin, his hair, his laughter when we played together in the playground.  We were sad when his family moved back down south.  We didn’t understand why he had to leave.


Alice was my next African-American friend.  She was my roommate freshman year of college, a year older, from the city, and very wise about the world.  One night I came home late from the library, and she asked who had walked with me.  When I told her I was alone, she gave me a lecture about women being assaulted on campus and the need to protect ourselves.  “You really are a hick, aren’t you?” she sighed.  Being black was hard enough; being a black woman was harder still.


Before we met him, all our son told us about his best friend in kindergarten was that he wore glasses.  Adam is African-American, and he and Andrew are still best friends.  Sometimes, when they were teenagers hanging out in Manhattan, a group of young black men would razz Adam about being with a white boy, but they just laughed about it.  What wasn’t funny was the time Adam was stopped at his front door by two police officers who demanded he provide proof that he lived there.  He didn’t have any; he had just taken a walk in his neighborhood.  It wasn’t until a white person from his building appeared to vouch for him that he was allowed to enter his own home – without an apology from the cops.


My friend Angela, who was my son’s coming-of-age mentor at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, says she is always aware of her color.  When she enters a room filled with people, she immediately takes its racial temperature.  Will she be at ease or on guard? 


It is a luxury that white people obliviously enjoy – to walk down the street, to drive a car, and to enter a room without wondering whether they will be stopped, interrogated or insulted.  Since the election, articles in magazines and journals have posited a “post-racial America,” but the reality is closer to the NY Post cartoon.  At its most benign, it suggests that the stimulus bill was so bad that monkeys could have written it.  At its most provocative, it compares the president to a rabid chimp. At its most dangerous, it invites assassination.


Chairman of the NY Post Rupert Murdoch claimed ultimate responsibility for the cartoon, writing, “I have spoken to a number of people and I now better understand the hurt this cartoon has caused. . . I promise you that we will seek to be more attuned to the sensitivities of our community.”  He still maintains that the intention was not racist and regrets that “it was interpreted by many as such.”  Murdoch sounds like the bully that Terry and our friends used to chase around the school playground: “I’m sorry you’re such wimps that you got hurt by my joke.”


This is not a matter of much-maligned “political correctness,” but one of empathy – and a profound lack of imagination.  How does it feel to walk in another person’s shoes?  It really doesn’t take much to feel another’s pain and fear; all it takes is being human.


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