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Published: Saturday, 2/21/2009

Time to start honest dialogue on race

BY ROSE RUSSELL

IT IS possible that cartoonist Sean Delonas wasn't thinking about President Obama when he drew his much-maligned cartoon published in Wednesday's New York Post.

Apparently, none of his editors considered how the cartoon would resonate. It was loaded with racial stereotypes and sensitive images that are outrageous and offensive to African-Americans.

This is not subtle stuff. Two police officers, one with a smoking gun, stand over a dead chimpanzee lying in a pool of blood with bullet holes in his chest. One of the officers says, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."

Yep, the New York Post went there. What could the cartoonist and his editors possibly have been thinking? Clearly, they were not.

It's possible that Mr. Delonas intended his cartoon to be a play on two issues - the rogue chimp killed by police in Connecticut on Monday after it attacked a woman and the stimulus bill that President Obama signed on Tuesday.

But I can't help but wonder whether the cartoon was merely dismissed as one that could possibly cause a bit of a stir, or whether anyone at the newspaper raised a red flag and said, "Hold on a minute here. This is packed with racist messages and it's bound to cause a controversy. Do we want to deal with that?"

Cartoonists - much like their columnist colleagues - can sometimes be incorrigible. That's why it's their editors' job to rein all of us in when we get too far out of hand.

Somebody at the Post either wasn't thinking, thought the response would be tepid, or simply didn't care.

African-Americans have long been ridiculed by racists as ape-like. Unarmed African-Americans have been fatally shot and killed by police officers far too often.

And though President Obama, the nation's first African-American president, did not literally pen the stimulus bill, it was the first piece of legislation that he signed after taking office.

So while the cartoonist tried to make light of all that, he failed miserably and ended up making a mockery of the historical stereotypes and sensitive issues. It's unfortunate that nobody at the Post connected the dots on those racially charged references.

If the cartoon does anything, it ought to open the door to prove U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wrong, that we are not "a nation of cowards" on the issue of race. That's what the attorney general said the other day, and like the cartoon, his remarks have drawn stern criticism - including one bizarre comment that he has no business saying anything like that.

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," Mr. Holder told Justice Department colleagues in a Black History Month address.

Though he said average Americans don't talk enough about race, we have talked more about it since the candidacy of President Obama. But he is correct about this: If there is to be progress on the subject, it is imperative for us to get out of our comfort zones and be "tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us."

"Saturdays and Sundays, America in the year 2009 does not in some ways differ significantly from the country that existed almost 50 years ago. This is truly sad," he said.

Attorney General Holder is right. It is sad, largely because we don't bring up the subject until some racially charged issue like the Delonas cartoon or President Obama forces us to.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

E-mail rrussell@theblade.com



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