Silly, sick, demeaning cracks made by such as the canned Univision host Rodner Figueroa likening First Lady Michelle Obama to a Planet of the Apes character are not new. Four years ago, the then CEO of the Tennessee Hospitality Association, Walt Baker, took much heat and lost a lot of business for his marketing firm when he also likened the First Lady to a monkey. Four years later, a Belgian newspaper, De Morgen, went one, in fact, two better. Before Obama’s visit to the Netherlands in March 2014, it ran a Photoshop picture that depicted both Michelle and President Obama as apes. De Morgen was not just your run of the mill far right, shrill racially xenophobic European newspaper. It purported to be a progressive newspaper. Yet, despite its alleged politically enlightened stance, it apparently saw no contradiction in its ape imagery of the president and Michelle. In February 2009, New York Postcartoonist Sean Delonas ignited a firestorm with his casual depiction of President Obama as a monkey.
In the nearly five years between Baker and Figueroa’s idiotic pop-offs, with De Morgen sandwiched in between, the depiction, pillorying and vile spoofery of the Obamas as apes, monkeys and gorillas in the pack of race baiting websites, chat rooms, college frat parties, and student websites in assorted offbeat, crude, vile cartoons has become standard fare. That’s not an accident.
The long, sordid and savage history of racist stereotyping of African-Americans has been the stock in trade of race baiting and racial ridicule for more than century. A few grotesque book titles from a century ago, such as The Negro, a Beast; The Negro, a Menace to American Civilization; and The Clansman depicted blacks as apes, monkeys, bestial, and animal-like. The image stuck in books, magazines, journals, and deeply colored the thinking of many Americans of that day… that day?
In the movie version of Rudyard Kipling children’s classic, The Jungle Book, the Disney Studios in 1967 graduated from the other standard animal depiction of African-Americans as black crows to depicting African-Americans as the monkey like jive, gibberish blathering King Louie. The film was remade in 1994.
Black personalities and notables have been special targets of the ape and monkey taunts and digs. Jackie Robinson was regularly taunted by opponents with monkey gestures and gibes. Black basketball greats Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan were ridiculed in cartoons as apes. And it’s become a virtual ritual for white fans to toss banana peels at black soccer players in Europe
The vile ape characterization of blacks is much more than a passing fancy of cranks, haters and unreconstructed bigots. In 2007, Penn State researchers conducted six separate studies and found that many Americans still link blacks with apes and monkeys. Many of them were young and had absolutely no knowledge of the vicious stereotyping of blacks of years past. Their findings with the provocative title “Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization and Contemporary Consequences,” in the February 2008 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was published by the American Psychological Association.
The overwhelming majority of the participants in the studies bristled at the faintest hint that they had any racial bias. But the animal savagery image and blacks was very much on their minds. The researchers found that participants — and that included even those with no stated prejudices or knowledge of the historical images — were quicker to associate blacks with apes than they were to associate whites with apes.
This was not simply a dry academic exercise. The animal association and blacks has had devastating real life consequences. In hundreds of news stories from 1979 to 1999 the Philadelphia Inquirer was much more likely to describe African Americans than Whites convicted of capital crimes with ape-relevant language, such as “barbaric,” “beast,” “brute,” “savage” and “wild.” And jurors in criminal cases were far more likely to judge blacks more harshly than whites, and regard them and their crimes as savage, bestial and heinous, and slap them with tougher sentences than whites.
First Lady Michelle Obama is a woman, a black woman, and has been a repeated soft target for the frustrations and even scorn of the Obama loathers. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama opponents eagerly latched onto out-of-context statement she made at a campaign rally in which she allegedly questioned her faith in America, and made a supposedly less than reverential reference to the flag. They brutally tarred her as a closet anti-American, race-obsessed, black radical. That made her an instant campaign liability. For weeks, she virtually disappeared from the campaign trail.
During her years in the White House, Michelle’s public acclaim and notoriety as a popular and much admired and respected First Lady has grown. This is too much for some. Figueroa was the latest to show that. In the process, he again showed there is nothing new in the ape slur of a president and his wife.