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To Be Racist

April 20th, 2011

Marilyn Davenport, a Tea Party activist and Republican Party central committee official representing the 72nd assembly district in Orange County, sent an email with this photo:

Chimp Adp

The image was accompanied by the tag line, “Now you know why — no birth certificate!”

When news of the image got out, Davenport became defensive:

Oh, come on! Everybody who knows me knows that I am not a racist. It was a joke. I have friends who are black. Besides, I only sent it to a few people–mostly people I didn’t think would be upset by it.

I’ve heard this many times before, and probably you have as well. People clearly cross the line in terms of expressions which are clearly inappropriate in terms of race, and then deny any hint of racism. All too often, the standard “some of my best friends” defense is used, which in itself is rather telling.

Part of the problem is in the exact use of terms, and part is in the misunderstood nature of racism.

First, it is within the realm of possibility that Ms. Davenport is not in the least bit racist. And yet, the image she sent was clearly racist. For this to be possible, we simply have to assume that Ms. Davenport simply is clueless as to racial sensitivities; she would have to be almost completely ignorant as to the history and nature of racism, what offends people, and why such things offend people.

For example, I might hear someone use a term which is racist, but I have never heard it before, and I don’t recognize any racism in the context of the utterance, so I just think it’s a general term not related to race. Then, at a later time, I use the term myself, and am accused of saying something racist. I can claim that I am not a racist–but I would also have to admit to being ignorant about the nature of the term. In this case, however, Ms. Davenport would have to be pretty damned ignorant not to know that depicting black people as chimps has no racial connotations.

Then we have the misunderstood nature of racism. There is a general impression that for a person to be racist, they have to pass a certain threshold of knowing, overt hatred and contempt. That’s not the case. It is entirely possible to be prejudiced and yet honestly believe yourself to be a tolerant person. And yes, you can even have friends who are black and still do things which are racist.

Perhaps the most common expression of racism is in terms of comfort zones, most likely at the unconscious level. The impressions and connotations we collect over a lifetime of experience lead to certain emotional and even informational biases which we take for granted as normalcy. We don’t even think about them most of the time, and often don’t recognize them when we use them as factors in coming to a decision.

Take the act of hiring a person for a job. We tend to think of this as an objective task, based on training, qualifications, and performance under a strict set of professionally determined parameters. However, a great deal of what we judge will be based upon our subjective impressions of how this person will work in the job. Doubts might surface with people we have been prone to discriminate against which would not arise with people we are more comfortable with; confidence may emerge concerning a candidate who looks more like an “ideal” person than it would with someone we are less inclined to trust. We believe that these impressions are purely a result of what the candidates present, when in fact they come from within ourselves–a result of a lifetime of conditioning. Worse, since we sincerely believe that we are not racists, we refuse to believe that these impressions could be racist in nature, only strengthening the conviction that they are rational and objective, and therefore justified.

I experienced this firsthand once. As an administrator at a conversation school in Japan many years ago, I was involved in the hiring process. It was my duty to field phone calls from prospective candidates, weed out the ones who were not qualified, and make phone calls to the ones who might be acceptable. Over the phone, I would gather impressions based on spoken presentation, gather more background information, and make a further decision as to whether the person should come in for an interview in person. Other administrators would then give the interview and make final decisions about hiring.

One person I spoke to over the phone seemed like an ideal candidate. His resume was good; it was well-written, and he had training and experience related to the position. Over the phone, his voice was clear and pleasant, and his demeanor was calm and agreeable. I came out with a strong impression that this person would be a very good teacher, so I approved him for an interview slot.

After the interview, however, he was turned down. Surprised, I asked the guy in charge, the one who made the decision, as to why. The response was that the candidate was distinctly unfriendly, that his manner was too aggressive, and students would be intimidated by him. I was taken aback by this, but understood that sometimes people come across differently in person, or they just might be in a different mood at the time of the interview.

However, I later asked the other person who attended the interview, a young woman who was a junior staff member, and asked her if she had gotten the same impression. She looked around to make sure the other guy wasn’t there, and then quietly shook her head. Her reaction told me two things: that the first guy’s impression of the candidate was probably not objective, and the staff member thought the other guy was unreasonable. So I went back and checked the person’s file, which included a photograph we asked people to bring in when they came for an interview. Sure enough, the candidate was black.

The administrator in question had never said or done anything previous to that which would have led me to believe that he was racist. I was pretty confident that if I confronted him and suggested that race had played a role in his decision, that he would deny it completely–and would probably be offended by the suggestion. Nevertheless, it seemed pretty clear that his personal biases, probably wholly unconscious in nature, led him to feel intimidated, influencing his judgment of the candidate.

This is the problem: these people thoroughly believe they are not racist, and so get angry and defensive when it is suggested, even indirectly, that race was involved. Because they see racism as an all-out attitude, that their image of racism is one of a person who overtly believes people are inferior because of race and are generally contemptible, asinine, and even evil, they cannot accept the idea that they could be associated with that group. They fail to see that racism can be subtle, and can issue from people who genuinely see themselves as unprejudiced. This misunderstanding, unfortunately, only perpetuates discrimination of the type most common in this day and age.

However, to those who are even more defiant about race, it can be overt and still they’ll deny racism. I once knew someone who felt that, as a businessman, he could consciously refuse to hire any black people on the grounds that statistically, black people were more prone to crime–and he insisted that this was not racist, and he was completely tolerant.

And yes, he had black friends.

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  1. Tim Kane
    April 20th, 2011 at 14:13 | #1

    Perhaps they were just trying to emphasize the fact that Cheney and Obama are related.

  2. April 20th, 2011 at 15:29 | #2

    Search for “obama monkey” and “bush monkey” pictures on google. The first numbers in almost 9,5mln hits, the second is less than half of it.

    Taking into consideration the length of their presidency, and the amount of reasons Bush gave for this comparison, the difference is staggering.

  3. Luis
    April 20th, 2011 at 15:47 | #3

    Bush being shown as a chimp isn’t even relevant. It’s like like showing Obama with buck teeth; it would not register as racist. Show the Japanese prime minister with exaggerated buck teeth, and you have a whole different ball game.

    It’s all about context. Dress a photo of me up to make me a witch doctor, that’s not racist, at least not towards me. Dress up a photo of a black person the same way, and again you have a completely different effect.

    Bush was represented as a chimp primarily because it expressed a lack of confidence in his mental capabilities. The Tea Partiers may say a lot of things, but they don’t criticize Obama for lacking intelligence–usually, it’s the opposite.

    So, where does the chimp reference come from? Many would claim it’s completely innocent, it’s just the ears. But you can’t say it’s the ears unless you can produce at least one public image of Ross Perot–whose stature and voice in addition to his ears make him far more likely to be characterized as such–as a chimp. Nobody thought to do that, in caricature or otherwise. And if the president was exactly like Obama except was white, it’s doubtful the comparison would be made there either.

  4. Troy
    April 21st, 2011 at 04:13 | #4

    So, where does the chimp reference come from? Many would claim it’s completely innocent, it’s just the ears.

    Goes beyond that, it’s part of delegitimizing Obama as human altogether.

    When Bush was compared to a chimp it was to highlight the resemblance and cast aspersions on his intelligence.

    He still enjoyed the legitimacy of being a WASP upper-class Ivy League scion of the Establishment.

    Chimpification of Obama just makes no sense in anything other than a totally racist context.

    Obama’s general demeanor could be lampooned by comparing him with the african-vulcan from the Star Trek franchise, but that wouldn’t be delegitimizing enough.

    But at some point we’re just going to have to let Republicans be Republicans.

    Hopefully the people will stop voting for these clowns.

  5. Ron Paul
    April 21st, 2011 at 11:25 | #5

    Remember when the GOP stood for balanced budgets, individual freedom and isolationism.
    The Republican Party has run up these deficits, we want the federal government to be in our bedrooms and between our women and their doctors, we started two wars instead of ending them like the Korean War and were supposed to stop the Vietnam War the Democrats started. We have lost our way!

    So why waste our time with these fools who use their racist rhetoric, like this Marilyn Davenport and Donald Trump with his birther unproven myth, why do we allow our Fox news people to keep talking down our country. Don’t they know we can win the next election with optimism and hope instead of the current rhetoric, that the sky is falling, if we are not careful we will end up like chicken little where no one will listen to us.

  6. Troy
    April 21st, 2011 at 16:50 | #6

    ^ Nixon did in fact do a decent job of winding down the war. By mid-1969, after the Hamburger Hill battle that pretty much shocked the nation, Nixon directed Gen Abrams to not go toe-to-toe like that with the communists any more.

    We then proceeded to get out of Vietnam just as fast as we got in. By mid-1970 we were only capable of minimal offensive action (the cross-border incursion into Cambodia), by 1971 we were mainly supporting ARVN, and by 1972 we were only supporting ARVN (they had to fight the Easter Offensive only with US advisors and airpower).

    As for the Republicans now, the problem is they are of and from the religious nutball grouping of this country — fundamentalists and evangelicals.

    Abortion is a BIG issue with these people, and I can at least understand why, and do not begrudge or demean their principled pro-life positions.

    Most of what drives me up the wall with Republicans stems from this nutball faction, but there’s also the general conspiracy-theory stuff they harbor, that scientists are fabricating global warming evidence to feather their own nests, or that minorities are stealing elections via vote fraud.

    I also do think we’re just spending WAY too much on government now. Around $6T this year, that’s over $50,000 per household. That doesn’t even make any sense, that’s like one government job per household!

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