I cannot imagine that 10 minutes passed from the time it first appeared online to the time my phone rang early this morning. The New York Post had published a (now controversial) cartoon depicting two police officers that had shot a monkey — one of them quipping, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."
The cartoon — you see it here — was clearly referencing the recent odd-ball news item, that a woman from Stamford, Conn., had been mauled by someone else's pet chimpanzee and that the animal had to be "put down," as it were, to preserve public safety. But the political commentary seemed an odd juxtaposition to the visual. Could the cartoon have been suggesting that Barack Obama, principal champion of the bill and our first black president, was somehow chimp-like?
Though much of the reaction to the cartoon has been outrage at the implication that our 44th president is remotely simian, there have been other messages in the blogosphere as well. A few pleaded with us to see reason in this post-Obama era. They begged us to understand that the cartoonist clearly meant to impugn congress, Wall Street executives and academic economists and that there was no racial subtext to the piece. Others saw the cartoon as racist but declined to become outraged. Saw the injustice in the image, but saw it as a minor injustice, not one worth worrying too much about. After all, they argue, having a black president means that America is post-racial and does not need to worry about petty things like harmless pictures in a paper. They insist this was a little thing.
The best science available suggests otherwise.
For the better part of the past seven years, my colleagues and I have conducted research on the psychological phenomenon of dehumanization. Specifically, we have examined cognitive associations between African Americans and non-human apes. And the association leads to bad things. When we began the research, we were skeptical of whether or not participants even knew that people of African descent were caricatured as ape-like — as less than human — throughout the better part of the past 400 years. And, in fact, many were not. However, even those who were unaware of this historical association demonstrated a cognitive association between blacks and apes. That is, when they thought of apes, they thought of blacks and vice versa — when they thought of blacks, they thought of apes.
But the fact of this cognitive association was not the most disturbing part of the research. Rather, it was the fact that the association between blacks and apes could lead to violence.
In one study, participants who were made to think about apes were more likely to support police violence against black (but not white) criminal suspects. The association actually caused them to endorse anti-black violence. Most disturbing of all, however, 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.
Similar psychological mechanisms of discrimination are at work in the bloated incarceration rates of young black men, the trenchant educational achievement gap between blacks and whites, and the racial bias evidenced in law enforcement officer's use of force. Though some are demonstrating leadership towards equality, we find that many of our nation's oldest racial shames have persisted into a period when a black person can reasonably aspire to the highest office in the land.
I mention these depressing findings because it is tempting to ignore them in the wake of President Obama's inauguration — to downplay the significance of "isolated events" of bigotry and "harmless words or pictures." But precisely because the dream of post-raciality is seductive for so many, it is all the more important that we not forget that cartoons like the one in today's New York Post are never isolated-and consequently, never harmless.
Today's Post cartoon is not far removed from the "Curious George" Obama sock puppet, a "Curious George" Obama T-shirt, a Japanese advertisement depicting Obama as a monkey, and countless other Obama/monkey comparisons that cropped up throughout the year-long Democratic primary and presidential campaigns. Psychological science has long known that words and pictures, far from harmless, can be the very instruments of dehumanization necessary for collective violence-regardless of how innocently they are intended.
As we live through this historic presidency, there will doubtless be more of these moments of impolitic insensitivity. Some will be more egregious than others. But, as a scientist, my sincerest hope for us all is that we not be biased by the desire to see our struggle towards racial equality as over. The evidence is too clear that the little things are still a big deal.
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Phillip Atiba Goff is an assistant professor on the department of psychology at the University of California and the executive director of research for the Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity. The consortium is hosting the first Summit for Police Leadership in Equity on Feb. 26 in New York City. High-ranking representatives from 15 of the largest municipal police departments in North America will be attending to discuss a new model for research collaborations that would — for the first time — allow independent researchers to gain unprecedented access to law enforcement personnel, policies and records.