The essence of political power is the ability to define. The ability to define "us" and "them". The ability to define what is "good" and "evil". The ability to define what is and is not a political problem. The ability to define political ideals, and the meanings of words. Hegemonic power is the ability to define without even trying, without anyone even noticing, much less objecting. And the first order of business of oppositional politics is to contest-not just a single definition, but the very ability to define.
"Don't piss on my leg and tell me it's raining."
That's what the NY Post did this week with its cartoon portraying President Obama as a murdered chimpanzee. First, the Post asserted its hegemonic capacity to define by publishing the cartoon. Then, when an uproar ensued, it asserted that capacity again, by denying what it had done. And then it asserted that capacity a third time, by defining itself as apologizing, when it was actually doing the exact opposite-continuing to attack those who called for the apology.
Hegemony matters, because, quite frankly, without challenging hegemony, Obama's presidency and the Democratic trifecta are ultimately doomed to fail. Hegemony is all-encompassing, touching on every aspect of politics, indeed, touching on every aspect of our culture, from which our politics comes. By proclaiming himself a "pragmatist" and eschewing ideological confrontation, Obama has placed himself at a distinct disadvantage. Arguably, he lacks a fundamental grasp of hegemony works. Either that, or he fails to appreciate how fundamentally it limits his options. Or he's playing 111-dimensional chess and he's getting all the rest of us to do his work for him. But any way you look at it, the response to the Post's cartoon is taking up the mantel of counter-hegemonic struggle, and raising it to the highest level.
In my earlier diary, "A Three-Ring Circus On Race This Week", I described the theoretical core of "colorblind racism", an ideology that facilitates continued white dominance in a post-Civil Rights Movement era, while denying that it is doing so. While colorblind racism is the main public face of movement conservatism, which allows it to blend in with the mainstream of white American thinking on race, there is always an element of old-fashioned racism present as well. Indeed, colorblind racism and old-fashioned racism repeatedly interact with one another, as the framework of colorblind racism makes clear.
(4) Minimization of Racism:
Minimization of racism is a frame that suggests discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities' life chances ("It's better now than in the past" or "There is discrimination, but there are plenty of jobs out there).
Naturalization is a frame that allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences.
can function quite nicely to tolerate and excuse racist shock jocks, who have often served to set the tone that is followed up on by others in the conservative media, including the NY Post.
because racism is no longer a big problem, and these are just examples of crude jokes that every tells or enjoys, whether they will admit it or not, there's nothing to get excited about, and those that do get excited are merely pushing an agenda. Such is the rationale that flows quite naturally from the framework of colorblind racism. And because the rationale so readily excuses outright, old-fashioned racist invective, the two forms of racism create a natural symbiotic dynamic.
This was clearly part of the dynamic behind the Post'snon-apology::
Wednesday's Page Six cartoon - caricaturing Monday's police shooting of a chimpanzee in Connecticut - has created considerable controversy.
It shows two police officers standing over the chimp's body: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," one officer says.
It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill.
But it has been taken as something else - as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism.
This most certainly was not its intent; 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.
Sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon - even as the opportunists seek to make it something else.
To someone fully embedded within the framework of colorblind racism, such a statement makes perfect sense: [naturalization] the cartoon was "just a cartoon", perfectly natural, the sort of thing that newspapers publish all the time. (And some people get mad and misunderstand them all the time, too.) If someone was offended, we're sorry. But some folks don't realize that [minimization] racism's over, they see racism everywhere, when it's really no big deal. And we're not going to apologize to them, because they just "have an agenda."
But the framework of colorblind racism does more than just show how this non-apology continues to advance racist narratives in this way. It also helps us disengage from the psychological games being run here. Once we do disengage, something more should become obvious: The Post is pretending to apologize only to those who have not objected to it in the past, while pointedly refusing to those who have. But were it not for people raising a ruckus-and, in fact mounting a mass protest, does anyone seriously think that the Post would be apologizing to anyone? No, of course not. The apology is being forced by anti-racist activists, but the Post adamantly refuses to apologize to them. It will not overtly admit that they are right, even though the simple fact that it is apologizing shows that they are right. This disjunction between what is tacitly admitted and what is openly admitted is the hypocrisy gap that is always a component of racism. And, of course, it's the same gap that could be found in the original cartoon, pretending that it was not both a slur and an attack on the President.
Concerning the cartoon itself, at Jack and Jill Politics, Baratunde Thurston (aka Jack Turner) wrote "The Connection Between Blacks As Apes And Police Brutality", in which he brings up the research of UCLA psychologist Dr. Phillip A. Goff, who has specifically studied "the link between seeing blacks as apes, monkeys, etc and treating them brutally." As Thurstan notes, "This is the connection I was able to draw in my closing line on air, [on Countdown] but I didn't have time to give full references." He then reproduces in full a response from Goff, from which I take this large excerpt:
Though much of the reaction to the cartoon has been outrage at the implication that our 44th president is remotely simian, there have been other messages in the blogosphere as well. A few pleaded with us to see reason in this post-Obama era. They begged us to understand that the cartoonist clearly meant to impugn congress, Wall Street executives and academic economists and that there was no racial subtext to the piece. Others saw the cartoon as racist but declined to become outraged. Saw the injustice in the image, but saw it as a minor injustice, not one worth worrying too much about. After all, they argue, having a black president means that America is post-racial and does not need to worry about petty things like harmless pictures in a paper. They insist this was a little thing.
The best science available suggests otherwise.
Note the intrusion of minimization here, folks! Goff continues:
For the better part of the past seven years, my colleagues and I have conducted research on the psychological phenomenon of dehumanization. Specifically, we have examined cognitive associations between African Americans and non-human apes. And the association leads to bad things. When we began the research, we were skeptical of whether or not participants even knew that people of African descent were caricatured as ape-like - as less than human - throughout the better part of the past 400 years. And, in fact, many were not. However, even those who were unaware of this historical association demonstrated a cognitive association between blacks and apes. That is, when they thought of apes, they thought of blacks and vice versa - when they thought of blacks, they thought of apes.
But the fact of this cognitive association was not the most disturbing part of the research. Rather, it was the fact that the association between blacks and apes could lead to violence.
In one study, participants who were made to think about apes were more likely to support police violence against black (but not white) criminal suspects. The association actually caused them to endorse anti-black violence. Most disturbing of all, however, was a study of media coverage and the death penalty. Looking at a sample of death-eligible cases in Philadelphia from 1979 to 1999, the more that media coverage used ape-like metaphors to describe a murder trial (i.e. "urban jungle," "aping the suspects behavior," etc.) the more likely black suspects, but not white suspects, were to be put to death.
Not surprisingly, black suspects were much more likely to be described in ape-like terms. And they were more frequently executed by the state.
Similar psychological mechanisms of discrimination are at work in the bloated incarceration rates of young black men, the trenchant educational achievement gap between blacks and whites, and the racial bias evidenced in law enforcement officer's use of force. Though some are demonstrating leadership towards equality, we find that many of our nation's oldest racial shames have persisted into a period when a black person can reasonably aspire to the highest office in the land.
I mention these depressing findings because it is tempting to ignore them in the wake of President Obama's inauguration - to downplay the significance of "isolated events" of bigotry and "harmless words or pictures." But precisely because the dream of post-raciality is seductive for so many, it is all the more important that we not forget that cartoons like the one in today's New York Post are never isolated-and consequently, never harmless.
Today's Post cartoon is not far removed from the "Curious George" Obama sock puppet, a "Curious George" Obama T-shirt, a Japanese advertisement depicting Obama as a monkey, and countless other Obama/monkey comparisons that cropped up throughout the year-long Democratic primary and presidential campaigns. Psychological science has long known that words and pictures, far from harmless, can be the very instruments of dehumanization necessary for collective violence-regardless of how innocently they are intended.
As we live through this historic presidency, there will doubtless be more of these moments of impolitic insensitivity. Some will be more egregious than others. But, as a scientist, my sincerest hope for us all is that we not be biased by the desire to see our struggle towards racial equality as over. The evidence is too clear that the little things are still a big deal.
This is precisely the sort of specific, detailed, scientifically established information we need to fight back against the hegemonic power of colorblind racism. If we do not challenge the colorblind racist power to define things, we shall be extremely limited in the scope of things that we can change. And if we are to challenge the colorblind racist power to define things, this is precisely the sort of information we will need to do so effectively.