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Pitts column: About that cartoon …

“An original Guinea negro whose blood has not been crossed is as docile as a shepherd dog.”
ó Atlanta Constitution
June 4, 1899
“Miss Mary Henderson The Victim of a Negro Beast”
ó Moberly Weekly Monitor
Aug. 29, 1901
“For two minutes Joe Louis was a throwback to a wild jungle creature.”
ó Associated Press
Jan. 14, 1940
“Towering above them all, his black apelike face, distorted with rage.”
ó Oelwein Daily Register
April 24, 1919
“Northerners cannot realize how low in intelligence, how irresponsible the pure negro is. He is an animal.”
ó The New York Times
June 9, 1901
Just so we’re all clear on why black folk get annoyed when newspapers compare them to animals.
For all that, though, it was not the New York Post’s now-notorious chimp cartoon that offended me. Rather, it was everything that came after.
Last week’s cartoon, referencing a recent incident in which police killed a chimpanzee that mauled a woman, depicts two officers standing over the bullet-riddled body of a dead ape. One says to the other: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”
Some observers were outraged, believing that cartoonist Sean Delonas had likened President Barack Obama to a chimp. I thought it equally likely he meant to taunt congressional Democrats and had inadvertently blundered into an awful racial stereotype. Given that ambiguity, my instinct was to give Delonas the benefit of the doubt.
Then he opened his mouth.
First, there was the strident defense: “absolutely friggin’ ridiculous” said the cartoonist in a statement to CNN. Later, finding itself questioned and criticized by everyone from the National Association of Black Journalists to N.Y. Gov. David Paterson to the NAACP, the paper issued a grudging apology in which, even while expressing regret, it tried to blame the controversy on “opportunists” to whom “no apology is due.”
It took nearly a week before it dawned on the paper’s brain trust that maybe people had good reason for their vexation. Tuesday, media baron Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Post, issued a new apology, no strings attached.
That it took so long to do the obvious speaks volumes.
Let’s be clear on one thing: The Post has a right to provoke and even offend. That is absolute and sacrosanct. But it is difficult not to be troubled by a suffocating cluelessness that allows it to provoke and offend without knowing it or meaning it or even, apparently, caring about it.
The paper’s attitude and its evident ignorance of historical context are not unique. Rather, they have their echo in too many white Americans whose default defense is the proverbial good offense whenever they feel cornered on the subject of race.
And yes, that attitude is fed by the fact that in recent years too many African-Americans have found it convenient to cry wolf where race is concerned. But if arrogance on the one end and disingenuousness on the other are our only alternatives, we’re in trouble.
Fittingly, this all unfolds in the wake of Attorney General Eric Holder’s contention that we need to become better and braver in talking about race. Take the Post’s self-satisfied ignorance as Exhibit A.
The paper didn’t know that it didn’t know. One hopes the next time controversy comes calling it will, before deploying its defenses, do what it should have done here.
Shut up and listen.

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