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The Violent Consequences of Calling Obama a Monkey

Why a "little joke" is far more sinister than people think.

Yet another Republican official has been caught sending an email in which Barack Obama is depicted as a monkey, meaning yet another Republican official is now attempting to cover for her digital mistake by saying that she didn't intend her email to be racist. Here's a GOOD newsflash for anyone considering creating or transmitting an image of the president as a monkey or ape: Such a depiction will always be racist, and there's science and centuries of context to explain why.

Firstly, in order to really understand the hatred at the core of Obama-as-monkey imagery, just look at the history of comparing blacks to monkeys. Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a leading Louisiana physician from the late 1800s who used shoddy science to support the practice of slavery, once wrote of blacks, "[N]ot that the negro is a brute, or half-man and half brute, but a genuine human being, anatomically constructed, about the head and face, more like the monkey tribes and the lower order of animals than any other species of the genus man." In other words, blacks are humans, but the most monkey-like of humans, meaning it's alright to force them into bondage and beat them when necessary. Cartwright even advocated regular whippings in order to cure "drapetomania," a "disease" that caused slaves to try and escape.

In the ensuing years, the animalization of African Americans ran rampant, with artists depicting black people as everything from blackbirds to alligator food. But the stereotype of black-as-monkey persisted in a way others didn't, owing in part to the fact that the "wild and dangerous black man" myth was also popular at the time. Blacks, according to this belief, and particularly black men, were dangerous subhumans out to rape white women and taint the white race. And because they were similar in intelligence to apes, you couldn't reason with them. Violence was the only way to teach them lessons.

As you might imagine, this belief system resulted in the systematic torture and killing of black men and women throughout the early 20th century for violations as innocent as whistling at a white woman (e.g. Emmett Till). And though the anecdotal evidence is plentiful, there's also scientific data about the link between the dehumanizing portrayal of blacks as monkeys and the violence brought on blacks in general.

In one study, participants who were made to think of apes were then more likely to support violence against black criminal suspects. "The association actually caused them to endorse anti-black violence," wrote Phillip Atiba Goff, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA, in a 2009 article. He continued:

Most disturbing of all 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.


Whereas black-ape imagery once spawned extrajudicial lynchings, now it's leading to state-sanctioned killings. Consider that the next time someone gets caught comparing President Obama or his wife to a monkey and complains that "the media" is making such a big deal out of it. "Lots of people compared George W. Bush to a monkey," they'll say. "What's the difference?"

The difference is simple: Whites weren't enslaved and murdered for centuries under the false premise that they were subhuman apes; blacks were. That seems like a fair argument against your stupid email forward.

For anyone still confused, see our slideshow on how to insult Obama without being a racist.

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