Felix the Cat flap signals era of racial paranoia

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Niall Ferguson, a Harvard University Professor, committed a post-racial boo-boo.

In an article for the Financial Times, Ferguson compared President Barack Obama to Felix the Cat, stating that Obama, like the cat, is “black and lucky.” Apparently, Ferguson didn’t get the memo that in a so-called post-racial society, we are not, in any way, allowed to make reference to President Obama’s race unless it is in a congratulatory or patronizing fashion. For example, you can say, “You are the first black president, a credit to your race and an official embodiment of our apology for the last 400 years of ethnic terror.” Such is now the rule in “The United States of America – The Beacon of Multicultural Luminance.”

The issue was later picked up by James Fallows of The Atlantic, who mentioned that Ferguson was advised to speak about his alleged error with Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates. According to Fallows, Gates did not consider the “Felix the Cat” comparison to be racist, which apparently makes everything O.K. According to Fallows, the “Intellectual Negro Security Clearance” (via Henry Louis Gates) was encouraged by Paul Krugman, a Princeton economist for whom I have tremendous respect on issues not related to race.

Here we are once again, two weeks after the “Great Beer Summit,” with one Harvard Crony reaching out to another to determine how the rest of us should respond to a sensitive issue. Note to Niall Ferguson, Paul Krugman and James Fallows: Henry Louis Gates is not the King of Black America, nor does he control our minds. In fact, he almost never shows up when our people are suffering through serious discrimination and there are many African American leaders who question whether or not Gates can distinguish racial profiling from a good old-fashioned urination contest. The greatest problems for working-class blacks don’t start and end on Harvard yard or Martha’s Vineyard, where Gates and his colleagues enjoy their wine and cheese. But then again, I hear Martha’s Vineyard is pretty nice, so I can’t get mad at him for that.

With that said, we are stuck with the difficult task of determining if Ferguson’s comparison of President Obama to a cat that is both “black and lucky” is racially insensitive. My conclusion: I believe in choosing our battles and this is not one worth fighting.

In our confusing quest to sort out the devastating impact of 400 years of racial inequality, we now live in a world in which almost any reference to race is at risk of being considered racist. If someone says, “You black bastard!” we conclude that he hates you for being black, rather than the fact that he thinks you’re a bastard. Mind you, reference to blackness in a derogatory way certainly communicates that the individual considers your blackness to be a liability that can be used against you, (for example, someone would never say, “You tall, handsome bastard!”) but there is also the reality that the person may hate you for reasons that have nothing to do with race. It is not illegal, nor unconditionally racist to dislike a black man, and to simultaneously notice that he’s black.

Every public figure knows that they are going to be scrutinized, ridiculed, and attacked on a regular basis. President Obama and the first lady (who was referred to as a “Big dude” by comedian Jay Mohr) are no exception. Comedian Robin Williams once stated that former first lady Barbara Bush had a striking resemblance to George Washington. I laughed when he said it. The rapper “Too Short,” made a very graphic song called “Freaky Tales,” in which he alleged that Nancy Reagan came to his house and did some things that would make a prostitute blush. Millions of people enjoyed that song.

The truth is that we cannot mute, maim and politically mutilate social critics just because they happen to notice that President Obama is a black man. Forcing Ferguson to apologize for his comments only reduces our ability to push for real accountability when individuals share a genuine disrespect for the black race. If Ferguson simply hates Obama for being too liberal, he may actually be more post-racial than the rest of us, who continue to be crippled by our overzealous and sometimes inaccurately paranoid racial sensitivities. America’s oppressive history has stolen a great deal from our country, but we cannot allow it to steal our right to free expression. In our fight for true equality, it is critical that we remain socially intelligent.

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