Why the Obama chimp email is no laughing matter

OPINION - The depiction of the nation's first black president as an ape or a monkey has been used against Barack Obama since the days of the 2008 presidential election...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Marilyn Davenport, an official in the Orange County Republican Party and a tea party activist, is facing criticism for sending an email depicting President Obama as the child of a family of chimpanzees.

Davenport apologized for the e-mail late Monday.

Initially, though, Davenport not only defended her email and refused to resign from her post, she dismissed the whole incident as a joke. “Oh, come on! Everybody who knows me knows that I am not a racist. It was a joke. I have friends who are black,” Davenport said. “Besides, I only sent it to a few people — mostly people I didn’t think would be upset by it.”

Although Marilyn Davenport would like you to laugh at her latest so-called joke — as she tries to convince you that some of her best friends are black — this is no laughing matter, especially for African-Americans. And it is part of an historical and deeply racist pattern of caricatures of black people.

Scott Baugh, Chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County, has called for an ethics investigation into the racist email incident. And this is not the first time Davenport has condoned racist emails or statements.

At the time of Obama’s inauguration, she defended and email from Los Alamitos Mayor Dean Grose depicting the White House lawn as a watermelon patch. Further, she defended Newport Councilman Richard Nichols when he opposed grassy areas at a beach on the grounds that “with grass we usually get Mexicans coming in there early in the morning and they claim it as theirs, and it becomes their personal, private grounds all day.”

Orange County, once called “Reagan Country,” is home of Orly Taitz — who is known as the queen of the brther movement. Obama won an impressive 48 percent of the county vote in the 2008 election.

The depiction of the nation’s first black president as an ape or a monkey has been used against Barack Obama since the days of the 2008 presidential election. For example, at a McCain-Palin rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a man held a stuffed monkey doll with an Obama bumper sticker. In February 2009, a New York Post cartoon depicted stimulus author Obama to a rabid ape that was shot to death by police. In March 2010, Walt Baker, CEO of the Tennessee Hospitality Association, lost his job after forwarding an email message that compared first lady Michelle Obama to Tarzan’s chimpanzee Cheeta. Serves him right. And last month in Brazil — the country with the world’s second largest black population after Nigeria — a website featured a cartoon with Obama as a monkey. This, as the American president prepared to visit the South American nation.

In a variation on this theme, in June 2009 a staffer to a Tennessee state Sen. Diane Black lawmaker disseminated an email called “Historical Keepsake Photo” — which included portraits of all the U.S. presidents, but a pair of “spooked” white eyes against a dark background in place of Obama’s photo.

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For years, in popular culture and in cartoons, Americans regarded black people as monkeys, apes and other inferior beings. It was no accident that the Little Black Sambo in those vintage cartoons looked like a monkey. He was a monkey. When a society dehumanizes a group of people, it paves the way for laws that degrade that group and strips its members of their rights.

Back in the day, those cartoons helped to justify the discrimination and racial violence African-Americans faced. These images conveyed to society that blacks were inferior, that they were less than human and unworthy of the protections afforded other people. Similarly, in World War II artwork propaganda, Americans depicted Japanese as apes and monkeys — in order to justify the bombing of Japanese civilians and the internment of Japanese-Americans — while Nazi artists and filmmakers created racist images of Jewish people as vermin in order to pave the way for the genocide of the Holocaust.

In a hopelessly pathetic attempt to defend the racist Obama chimp email as humor, someone somewhere will try to compare it to depictions of George W. Bush as a chimpanzee. But this is a perfect example of false equivalence, of apples and oranges. Bush-as-chimp is not the same as Obama-as-chimp. After all, the former lacks a racist subtext that is deeply rooted in history. Never were whites in this country depicted as primates in order to racially discriminate against them. However, black people were, and apparently still are, racially victimized by these horrid, hurtful and tasteless images.

This is why Marilyn Davenport is dead wrong to conclude her email is humor. This is not funny, this is shameful. And nobody is buying what she has to sell.