| Commentary: A call for courage and repentance|
By John Coleman*
Feb. 20, 2009
The New York Post cartoon fiasco and a candid speech on race at the Department of Justice by Eric Holder, our new U.S. attorney general, came on a single day, Feb. 18, during Black History Month. Such a coincidence—indeed, a convergence—is too meaningful and significant to ignore.
Holder, the first black chief lawyer of our nation, courageously, in the view of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, called us “a nation of cowards” for our fearful avoidance, and often resistance, to any serious, honest discussion of the challenging topic of race in America.
“Cowards” is a strong word, but essentially an accurate one for most of us—especially when we recognize that fear and the refusal to move past fear, are expressed and usually hidden in many conscious and unconscious attitudes and behaviors: anger, false pride, rejection, stubbornness, apathy, acts of clueless ignorance, hurtful malice, hatred, bigotry, racism, xenophobia, misogyny.
As if to prove the attorney general’s case, the New York Post presented itself as Exhibit A.
Perhaps the cartoonist was clueless when he depicted policemen shooting a chimp to symbolize negative reaction to what is widely regarded as President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus bill. Perhaps he never saw the cartoon’s connection to a history of racist depictions and references to black people as chimps and apes.
Maybe he didn’t even know that a photo of Obama signing the bill into law would appear on the preceding page and thus strengthen that connection in some minds. Or that the lethal image of police killing a chimp, which happened in another, wholly unrelated incident and news story, would be likened to the sickening frequency of police shooting and killing innocent black people in America and even to the fears and threats of assassination against our first black president.
We really don’t know what cartoonist Sean Delonas knew or considered in his depiction. And we are not in a position or of a mind to interrogate and psychoanalyze him to find out how honestly clueless or deviously bigoted he might or might not have been.
Anticipate the outrage
What we do know is that the Post editors, starting with Editor-in-Chief Col Allan, should have seen and been sensitive to these very likely connections and anticipated the outrage they would cause. After the chuckles and murmurs of approval for Delonas’s dubious cross-reference humor, someone should have said, “Hey, wait a minute. This might be a problem.”
Or better yet, “This is not right. There’s an unseemly insinuation depicted here that could be insulting and hurtful to a lot of people and not representative of the values we profess as a newspaper. We’d better come up with something else.”
If the right people, no matter their race, with a modicum of racial, cultural and historical awareness and sensibility were at the editors’ table, someone would, could and should have known better and put a stop to this consequential misstep. At the least, once the painful public outrage emerged and the offense came to light, the editor-in-chief should have hastened to apologize to all those who saw or even heard of the cartoon, while acknowledging its unintended racist and violent innuendo.
Instead, the inadequate apology that came Feb. 19 on the Post’s Web site added insult to injury. It was a backhanded, cynical dismissal of the feelings of anyone who chose to complain or protest against the newspaper’s offense and anyone who doesn’t support its conservative stance on issues. It was, to borrow Holder’s description, sheer cowardice in so many ways.
It is hypocrisy to claim an intended symbolic relationship between two unrelated subjects—the chimp and the economic stimulus bill—but then to deny the legitimacy of an unintended but perceived relationship between the cartoon chimp and President Obama, whose image was adjacent to the cartoon. Anyone with a basic grasp of communications theory understands that messages are often encoded by a sender but decoded by receivers to mean very different things.
Unintended consequences are consequences nonetheless, and when they happen, we must acknowledge, accept and apologize for them. Our professed intentions notwithstanding, we should also engage in some healthy introspection, research and candid dialogue that might well reveal unconscious and unintended racial bias or prejudice or outright bigotry toward people we don’t really understand or accept as equals.
As United Methodists, we profess a theology that states “when one part of the body hurts all of us hurt.” That theology calls on all of us to recognize and acknowledge the pain caused by unintended or unconscious messaging. For those members of the church who, like the cartoonist, believe there was no connection between the cartoonist’s work and his perceived message, we as people of faith are biblically called to acknowledge the hurt because we, the entire denomination, are part of the body of Christ and are thereby wounded by the act.
We United Methodists live by three simple rules: do no harm, do good and stay in love with God. Actions like these do harm, so our response must be to acknowledge the harm, do good by engaging in healthy and holy conferencing around the subject of racism, and staying in love with God, by living in such a way that honors God, by how we connect to God’s family.
That is where the hard, courageous work of enlightenment and transformation must begin. We must learn and come to grips with the prevalence and pain of insulting racist stereotypes and denigrations, whether they present blacks being likened to chimps and apes or Native Americans being denigrated through sports team names and mascots.
The discussion, the discoveries, the disarming of our stubborn, ignorant dispositions are teaching moments that can become learning moments if we let them.
Efforts to evolve from just knowing a few people of other races as coworkers, colleagues, classmates or acquaintances to really trying to learn, appreciate and connect with their lives, their emotions, their gifts and graces as friends or just fellow human beings—this is what Holder was talking about and what Obama was talking about in his historic speech on race in Philadelphia last March.
In decades of racial learning workshops and dialogue groups across our denomination, the Commission on Religion and Race has seen it happen numerous times. Awareness, acknowledgement, and the courage and freedom to humbly correct, apologize and forgive one another brings about change in people—often phenomenal, lasting changes in their beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.
If we are to evolve and mature as individuals, as people of faith and as a society, we must turn away decisively from the cowardice that erupts far too often in clueless but hurtful words and images, in stubborn pride and defensiveness, in self-protective apathy and in acts of blatant malice and bigotry.
Race, said Holder, is “an issue that we have never been at ease with, and, given our nation’s history, this is in some way understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough…and tolerant enough of each another (and of ourselves, we would add) to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.”
Like Holder and Obama before him, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and so many other wise, loving voices of all races, we, too, call for a spirit of courage, conviction and character in all Americans so that we can become together the people, the beloved community, that God intends for us to be.
*Coleman is communications director, United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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