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FEBRUARY 20, 2009, 3:10 P.M. ET
If Eric Holder is serious, he'll say a word in defense of the New York Post.
By JAMES TARANTO
Attorney General Eric Holder ruffled some few feathers Wednesday, when he gave a Black History Month speech in which he described America as "a nation of cowards" when it comes to "things racial":
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. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation's history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.
We are inclined to disagree with Holder's suggestion that everyday life is impoverished by an insufficiency of "frank conversations" about racial subjects. Often it is just plain sensible to put aside "matters that continue to divide us" and focus on common purposes or interests. What Holder desires sounds nightmarish to us: a cross between "No Exit" and "All in the Family," with none of the latter's wit.
Still, there is a grain of truth to Holder's infelicitous description of America as "a nation of cowards." The subject of race does make people uneasy, and for reasons that go beyond common sense and courtesy. An incident on the same day as Holder's speech illustrates the problem.
On Wednesday the New York Post published a cartoon by Sean Delonas depicting a pair of policemen and a the bullet-riddled body of a chimpanzee. As one of the cops holds a smoking gun, the other says, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."
Reuters describes what happened next:
Hundreds of demonstrators rallied to boycott the New York Post on Thursday, branding the newspaper as racist for publishing a cartoon that appeared to compare President to a chimpanzee.
Demonstrators led by civil rights activist Al Sharpton chanted "End racism now!" outside the parent company's skyscraper in midtown Manhattan and called for the jailing of Rupert Murdoch, whose international media conglomerate News Corp owns the Post. . . .
Because Obama promoted the $787 billion economic stimulus that he signed into law on Tuesday, critics of the cartoon interpreted the dead chimp as a reference to Obama, who became the first black U.S. president on January 20. . . .
"You would have to be in a time warp or in a whole other world not to know what that means," said demonstrator Charles Ashley, 25, a model who did not believe the cartoon was an innocent political joke.
Others said it made light of assassinating Obama, a possibility they said that worries many African-Americans.
Here we should note that News Corp. also owns The Wall Street Journal and this Web site. The Post is standing its ground, declaring in an editorial today:
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.
The claim that the cartoon was a racist caricature of President Obama is awfully far-fetched. It played off a news item involving an actual chimp (a story with which we are thoroughly bored, so click here if you want to learn more about it). The president did not write the stimulus bill; indeed, he has been widely criticized for giving congressional Democrats too free a hand in crafting it. And anyone who is familiar with Delonas's surrealistic oeuvre knows that he is an equal-opportunity offender. His work is in the spirit of "South Park," not Stepin Fetchit.
All that notwithstanding, some will say that Delonas should have known better. We see their point, and we remember thinking a couple of years ago, upon seeing the umpteenth simian caricature of George W. Bush, that nobody had better do that if Sen. Obama becomes president. We were aware that that would constitute an invidious stereotype, in a way that it did not when the president was a person of pallor.
But what if someone is unaware of this? Suppose that a columnist or cartoonist is so innocent of racial prejudice that he has never even thought to make a connection between black people and lower primates? Such a person would be a racial kerfuffle waiting to happen. The moment he inadvertently employed an idea or image that carried offensive connotations, he would be pilloried as "insensitive."
Consider the paradox: Racial "sensitivity" requires not eradicating racial stereotypes but keeping them alive--and not only keeping them alive but remaining acutely conscious of them at all times. Delonas and his editors are under attack for seeing "chimp" and failing to think "black guy." Perhaps this is an editorial failing, but it is certainly not a moral one.
Which brings us back to Eric Holder. If Americans are shy about discussing race, a big reason is the culture of intimidation promoted by people like Al Sharpton in the name of racial sensitivity. "Frank discussion" requires a willingness to trust that one's interlocutor is acting